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Category Archive for 'France'

In the third novel of the Occupation Trilogy, Patrick Modiano, then twenty-six, presents a narrative in which the speaker makes an effort to find and to know his father, who is not really co-operative. Like Modiano’s father during and after the war, this father has also been absent from his son’s life and is also a member of a gang which is taking advantage of the chaos to make money from selling illegal goods on the blackmarket. Modiano’s depiction of their lives and activities is very different from what was common among French writers at that time, as most authors explored new writing styles – surrealism, existentialism, and the absurd, among others – and did not deal with their own possible complicity in the Occupation. Here young Modiano shows his sense of reality as his narrator searches for his father at two different times, ten years apart, getting to know him in unexpected ways, but leaving open questions at the end of the novel. (Those unfamiliar with Modiano would do well to start with SUSPENDED SENTENCES as an introduction.)

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Set in that fraught period between the German occupation of France during World War II and the liberation which came much later, Patrick Modiano’s second novel, written in 1969, when he was just twenty-three years old, incorporates as his main character a young man who is at a total loss about what to do with his life. Describing himself as someone who “started out a pure and innocent soul,” he admits that his “innocence got lost along the way.” The people who have gravitated toward him now are former policemen and criminals, including an official now known as the Khedive, who have opened a “detective agency” from which they are collecting protection money. The Khedive, who still has important contacts throughout the police department, has high hopes himself of eventually becoming “Monsieur le Prefet de Police.” The young man known only as “Swing Troubadour,” does dirty work for this group, sometimes referred to as The Night Watch, earning a huge salary in the process. Possessing a warrant card and a gun license, the young man is ordered to infiltrate a “ring” of enemies and destroy it.

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When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014, only a few of his many books were available in English. Publishers quickly answered the call, and now most of his books are available to English speakers. One of the most recent to be translated is Modiano’s first novel, published when he was twenty-two, LA PLACE de L’ETOILE, a novel which explodes with the pent-up creative energy of an immature but highly sensitive young man. Among other things, he dreams of becoming a teacher and claims that he is six feet, six inches tall. He also claims that he has been put in charge of the procurement (and kidnapping) of high class women to work in the sex trade and that that he has been a longtime lover of Eva Braun, traveling the world – to Poland, Vienna, Istanbul, Egypt, and Palestine – laundering counterfeit money and trafficking in gold. Filled with the kind of imagination which young writers delight in exploring, this is one of the wildest debut novels I’ve ever read, filled with his personal fantasies and an enduring sense of irony and humor.

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Most of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s novels echo with memories of his own early life and his efforts to come to terms with his parents’ virtual abandonment of him before he was even in his teens. This novel is different, however, unique, a stand-alone. Main character Jean is sensitive, observant, and emotionally free to love, as the main characters appear to be in most of Modiano’s other novels, but in this novel, the main character does not feel like a substitute for the author. Instead, Jean is a young, rather naïve young man, caught in circumstances that he regards as more of a mystery than the serious crime that readers may conclude it to be, a conundrum which he does not fully grasp. Jean is almost certainly a pawn in the hands of clever criminals, rather than the victim of childhood traumas which typify Modiano’s main characters in his other novels. The mystery here, which may even include murder. Flashbacks, reminiscences, and overlaps between the events from the past and events in the present take place as Jean and the reader are forced to consider what really happened, especially when some of the earlier characters suddenly reappear in the present.

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Patrick Modiano establishes the tone and many of the themes for this often dream-like collection of interconnected stories, filled with mysteries and riddles, by setting the story at a school much like the one he himself attended. Nobel Prize-winner Modiano also saw almost nothing of either of his parents from the time he was a child until he was in his early twenties, when he went out on his own. His father, a smuggler of food and weapons from Africa and South America to the French Gestapo in Nazi-occupied France, had made a fortune, and his mother, an actress often out of the country, had no time for her sons, leaving them to be brought up with no sense of home by surrogates – at one point a group of circus acrobats who lived near a falling-down chateau. Modiano has spent his life since then recreating his early life in his novels and raising questions about it, including details from many aspects of his life. This is the first of his novels that I have seen which concentrates on his time at an elite boys’ boarding school, a school in which most of the other boys were also on their own, isolated from their busy parents and prevented from growing up in a home of love and attention. Overlapping stories of ten alums show the results of their schooling as time passes, and many of them are as lost and purposeless as adults as they were as teenagers. Memory and identity and its connection to these formative years become major themes.

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