Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sending out coded signals

Why do people whose existence you are unaware of, whom you meet once and will never see again, come to play, behind the scenes, an important role in your life?
So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood was originally published in French just the week before Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. No doubt this speeded along its translation.

I've read a few Modiano novels now, enough to confidently say this one is typical, if slighter.

This can easily be read in one sitting, if you don't count my getting up to fix myself a cocktail.

This book is all mood, and great to get lost in, but if you're looking to get from point A to B via a traditional story, with, you know, an ending, this book won't get you anywhere.

So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood starts in the Paris apartment of Jean Daragane, an aging novelist, who receives a mysterious phonecall, which leads to a meeting with a mysterious couple and further meetings with the young woman (with a mysterious dress), and a mysterious file folder containing a mysterious yet familiar passport photo, and from there it meanders down mysterious memory lane.

The couple had asked Daragane about a specific man, but his memories of him are vague and convoluted and intertwined with equally fuzzy memories of other figures from his past. He'd used the name of that man in one of his novels, and a few episodes also had basis in his memory of his reality.
He had written this book only in the hope that she might get in touch with him. Writing a book, for him, was also a way of beaming a searchlight or sending out coded signals to certain people with whom he had lost touch. It was enough to scatter their names at random through the pages and wait until they finally produced news of themselves.[...] He had never understood why anyone should want to put someone who had mattered to them into a novel. Once that person had drifted into a novel in much the same way as one might walk through a mirror, he escaped from you forever. He had never existed in real life. He had been reduced to nothingness...
So were they important names, or weren't they?

We never learn what really became of the figures from the past, we never learn much about the murder beyond the fact that there was one (and it's mentioned barely as much as I mention it here), we never know where the dress came from and the young woman never comes back for it. Most puzzling of all to me, we never know what happened to Jean's mother, or why he was temporarily in the care of others.

Tellingly, when Daragane goes to investigate the house of his memories, the local doctor suggests the best informant might be the little boy who was present — but this of course is Daragane himself. I mean, there are episodes from my childhood that, weirdly, my mother knows nothing about. But I know I don't understand them fully because I processed them the way a 7-year-old would.
Many years afterwards, we attempt to solve puzzles that were not mysteries at the time and we try to decipher half-obliterated letters from a language that is too old and whose alphabet we don't even know.
It's very Paul Auster, City of Glass, only more realistic. All very fuzzy and mind-bendy. The mood, and the way Daragane processes his memories, is very much exacerbated by the unseasonable heat — it makes everything urgent, sexual, restless, confused.

LA Times, Patrick Modiano's many detours into echoes, longings and tension:
It also has to do with how the past appears to rise up from the streets around us, mingling with the present until we are no longer sure where (or when) we are.
The Northwest Review of Books:
As we age, our brains accept and absorb events differently, and thus our perception of the importance of these events changes too. Storytelling often suggests clean causality, but that, for Daragane, is a youthful interpretation. For him, older and more isolated, the sheer vastness of his memory makes these connections nearly impossible to make.
The New Yorker, The Mysteries of Patrick Modiano

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