Modiano Moments

Since I first heard of French novelist Patrick Modiano upon his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, I’ve read off and on over ten of his novels and novellas, beginning with the three-novella collection Suspended Sentences up through his memoir (or anti-memoir) Pedigree which I read last week and The Black Notebook which I’m currently reading.

Modiano’s books, regardless of plot or characters, are all about searching for something or someone, making sense of fragments from a notebook entry written many years before, or a newspaper clipping referencing someone who may or may not have run with his father, he himself a shadowy figure for Modiano, a photograph or people half-remembered or fully mysterious. What is real, what is a memory, what is a figment, a filament.

A representative example:

At times, it seems, our memories act much like Polaroids. In nearly thirty years, I hardly ever thought about Jansen. We’ve known each other over a very short period of time. He left France in June of 1964, and I’m writing this in April 1992. I never received word from him and I don’t know if he’s dead or alive. The memory of him had remained dormant, but now it has suddenly come flooding back this early spring of 1992. Is it because I came across the picture of my girlfriend and me, on the back of which a blue stamp says Photo by Jansen. All right reserved? Or for the simple reason that every spring looks the same?

Afterimage, by Patrick Modiano (translated by Mark Polizzotti)

Thus Modiano’s books easily blend together in the mind, end up being about nothing, and question their existence in one’s mind, to the point that I’ll pick up one of the many slim volumes I have around the house, read the back cover description, flip through some pages, and yet have no idea whether I’ve already read it or not.

Marie Rivière in “Le Rayon Vert”, by Éric Rohmer (1986)

When I read Modiano it’s hard for me to avoid thinking of my beloved Éric Rohmer, with the French connection of course but also the elliptical nature of his films, the threadbare plots, the vérité of the interactions, the Parisian backdrop of so many of them. A few years ago during a Rohmer retrospective in Tokyo, I went to see my personal favorite of his, Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray, or Summer), even though I don’t speak French and the Japanese subtitles would be too challenging. True, I had seen it several times by that point, over the years. But dialogue has never been for me something very important in a Rohmer film, certainly not on the same level as the improvised performances like Marie Rivière’s excellent one here. (Here’s an excellent interview with Rivière about the filming and improvisation process.) Not all Rohmer is improvised of course, but the “Comedies and Proverbs” films of the 80s (Le Rayon Vert was the fifth entry) and the “Tales of the Four Seasons” films of the 90s have a strong improvisational tone. This in combination with loose plot structures, lends them an ephemerality that is very much akin to Modiano.

Reading Modiano, and fighting that feeling that there is never anything solid to grab on to, nothing solid upon which to stand, I’m also reminded of another filmmaker and something that I’m fairly sure I heard the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami say about his films when I saw him speak after a showing of his The Wind Will Carry Us at the San Francisco Film Festival in 2000:

I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater … Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kind of films I like.*

*Rather than paraphrase from memory, I’ve taken the above from an undated clip of Kiarostami saying what I remember him saying. (Tautology, much?) I imagine this is something he said often enough that he said something very similar the night I saw him.


This morning, not 15 minutes after I put down my daily Modiano — I’m reading 10-15 pages of The Black Notebook a day, sometimes a morning coffee, or an afternoon aperitif — in what can only be described as a Modiano moment, I saw in my email that I had received a direct message on Flickr (remember them?), written completely in French:

J'espère que vous allez bien? Je me présente Louise M[.], j'ai pu jeter un coup d'œil à votre galerie Flickr, que j'apprécie je tenais à vous le faire savoir car pour des débutants de la photo comme moi, c'est une source d'inspiration! bien que je ne prenne pas beaucoup de photos, il n'en demeure pas moins que c'est une activité que j'aime de plus en plus je cherche encore mon domaine, au plaisir d'échanger peut-être! (Google Translate)

Whether this is genuine or part of some intricate spam/scam I have no idea. Regardless, serendipity was coined for times like this.


Thanks to Modiano, recently I’ve been fantasizing about visiting Paris again, equipped with my own “black notebook” of addresses and locations from Modiano’s books, Rohmer’s films, and Atget’s photos. It was over 25 years ago that I was last in Paris, and I’ve only been there twice, or was it three times. If I were to write down what I remember of those trips, it would read like a passage from a Modiano book :

…summoning up the courage to ask someone in the train station (but which one?) about was the correct train to Chartres, as I didn’t know how to pronounce it and was petrified to be revealed as the dumb American…

…walking across a Paris bridge (Pont Neuf?) and seeing a woman below on the bank defecating, her ass lit up by moonlight…

…being lectured by filmmaker Rose Lowder in her tiny apartment (perhaps near the Pompidou), the tiniest apartment I had ever seen, to this day still the tiniest, about how unhealthy was the yogurt drink I was drinking…

…doing laundry somewhere in the Latin Quarter, from my first visit in 1991, of which I struggle to remember anything less banal than laundry…

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