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…

On Barry Eisler’s A Clean Kill in Tokyo

A Clean Kill in Tokyo Cover

I bought Barry Eisler’s A Clean Kill in Tokyo on a whim when it was recently on sale at Audible as part of the “Series Sale”, where they put on sale the first two or three books that part of a series. (Not a bad idea to hook people into eventually buying or using their credits on the remaining books.) I had never heard of Eisler, and at the risk of exposing my innate snobbery, I would normally never give these books the time of day, but the Tokyo setting and the “half-Japanese, half-American” protagonist had me intrigued. I was also not sufficiently put off by the quality of the narration afforded me by Audible’s sample, and seeing as they were priced at around $6 each, ended up buying the first three books in the series.

Eisler turned out to be more than competent in reading his own work, playing up the hard-boiled nature of his prose to good effect. I do admit to Googling Eisler before I hit the “Buy” button, and reading the phrase “…worked in Japan for Matsushita” on his Wikipedia page was enough to give me hope he wouldn’t be making some cringe-worthy pronunciation mistakes or “Japan is so weird”-ing Japan.

I instantly found the book a very likable experience. The book is written in the first person, and the main character (assassin for hire John Rain) is sufficiently jaded and heartless for my liking, wracked by demons caused by his upbringing — being bullied as a kid out of his element in small-town America after his father was killed when he was a child — or the Vietnam War, where he did appropriately nasty covert shit. (According to Eisler’s bio, he spent three years with the CIA training in covert activities before after university.) Yet he also has his assassin’s code (no hits on women or children, for example), loves jazz, and lets himself get involved with the daughter of one of his targets whose assassination on the Yamanote Line opens the novel.

The book’s narration is suffused with Rain’s inner thoughts and a running commentary on anything and everything seemingly. It feels a bit like Holden in A Catcher in the Rye, or Max Payne in the Rockstar video game series. The scene where he’s angling to accidentally run into jazz pianist Midori so that she doesn’t become wise to the fact that he’s been following her all this time, and their subsequent conversation, is one that particularly stands out. 

The book also goes fairly deep into the arcane politics of post-war LDP-dominated Japan, the rampant corruption and back-room dealing, and the intertwining of industry, mainly construction, the government, and the yakuza. While I understand the rough outlines of all that to know that Eisler knows of what he writes, a lot of it is so convoluted that it was hard to follow (the audiobook format is a bit to blame here I think). Eisler also delves far more into the shadier parts of American and CIA involvement in Vietnam that I would have expected, and having read my fair share of Vietnam War histories, this too felt spot on. 

The book is so well grounded in this political and historical milieu that it makes you start to wonder if what ought to be just plot points so the book stays in genre — that is, assassinations of government ministers meant to look like natural deaths, or the murdering of American print journalists so they can’t reveal any of the corruption (which of course the Japanese press wouldn’t touch) —  could actually be going on in today’s Tokyo. (On his website Eisler points to a New York Times story about devices that attack a target’s pacemaker so that the death looks natural. Yikes!)

Eisler ends the book with an audiobook-exclusive “author’s note” of sorts, and it’s delightful and not something I’ve ever heard before. He acknowledges that in two instances he took license with the location of a place, and directs us to his website for more ephemera about Tokyo and his books. His site is one of the better author sites I’ve seen, I have to say, with extras like “John Rain’s Top Ten Jazz Albums You Might Not Have Heard Of” and “Personal Safety Tips from Assassin John Rain”, as well as photos of Eisler from his Tokyo days. He also has a very in-depth page of errata which warms my heart for some unexplained reason. 

Highly recommended. I’m looking forward to starting the next John Rain book in the series soon.

Getting hooked on audiobooks

headphonesAny geek like myself who listens to podcasts has probably heard the advertisements for, the Amazon property that sells audiobooks. Their ads seem to have become a fixture on these podcasts, naturally enough since people who listen to podcasts are likely to be the most predisposed to listening to books narrated for them.

After remaining mostly oblivious to these ads — indeed fast-forwarding past these same-sounding ones most of the time — they eventually tempted me enough to sign up for a trial Audible membership. Now, some three months later, it’s hard for me to imagine letting my membership lapse, so hooked have I become on audiobooks.

I had not only been oblivious to the ads but to the audiobooks themselves. Once in a while I would see a passing mention on a blog or somewhere to “listening to The Da Vinci Code while traveling cross-country” and similar, but those little sparks never took alight. And podcasts — well, I’ve been listening to those from not much longer after that word was birthed (2004 according to Wikipedia). But to listen to a book? It simply never occurred to me, or if it did, it never seemed like something I could, or would want to, do. Now, I have that how could I have not known about this before feeling commonly experienced when becoming attached or obsessed with something that heretofore barely registered in the consciousness.

Now, I’m a book lover but not necessarily a reading lover — I read more slowly than molasses and with an attention span prone to distractions that gets worse as I get older — so audiobooks solve or alleviate a couple of problems I experience with physical books:


My commute is a short one (door-to-door, 35-40 minutes), and involves two walks (home-to-station, station-to-office), three different trains, and three shortish waits on platforms. It’s a stop-start journey not conducive to reading a book (the printed kind). Also, some of those trains are too crowded with fellow commuters to allow one to hold a book comfortably and you can forget about holding anything other than a slim-ish paperback at that. So, roughly 20-plus minutes of distracted, stop/start book reading versus 35-40 minutes of more or less seamless audiobook listening — there’s no contest really, the audiobook wins hands down.

Space Saving But Not Necessarily Cost Saving

Audiobooks also have great potential to help me cure — or maybe curb is the better word — my predilection for buying books, books I often end up not reading. I recently learned that there is a Japanese word for this affliction, tsundoku (積ん読), which Sanseido’s Wisdom dictionary defines as “buying books and just piling them up without reading”. (On a side note, Japanese does seem to contain some very specific words and phrases that fit me to a tee — mikka bouzu (三日坊主) is another.)

Japanese photo booksNow you would think that being in Japan without easy access to English-language books would have reigned in this bad habit, but the reality is that when I’m on vacation back in the States, or through various “book fairs” here where book importers sell-off remaindered titles for very reasonable prices, not to mention the availability of any book through Amazon Japan (with free shipping no less), my unread book collection rivals the one I (shudder) got rid of when I moved here 11 years ago from San Francisco. And, being an online purveyor of Japanese photo books, I now have an equally impressive collection of photography books the shelves are quite literally heaving.

That said, the audiobook listener is not immune from the dangers of having eyes bigger than one’s stomach. Because of the way the Audible membership plan I’m on works out, I get one “credit” per month to spend on any book I choose, no matter the price. (For this, I spend $14.95 per month as a membership fee, so it’s not a free credit as might be implied.) As it seemed to take me about two weeks to listen to a 10-14 hour book — judging by the frequency with which a few of the Audible reviewers that I follow post reviews, it would seem that I’m a “slow” listener — initially I used a credit to get one book and spent money to purchase a second one. I thought this would help prevent me from becoming an audiobook tsundoku as well. Unfortunately, a massive April $9.95 sale shot that plan to hell, and I now have about ten audiobooks on my hard drive that I haven’t listened to. Now, at around 100-150 MB each, this is not a big problem, space-wise. The bigger problem is that, just as with the unread printed books I have, those I haven’t gotten to yet have lost their new car smell, even more so as they’ve essentially been reduced to a file name.

Despite their benefits — or because of them? — I still have my doubts about audiobooks. Those doubts can be summed up by the thought, something this good can’t be healthy. As with a lot of conveniences, I wonder if I’m not somehow missing something. There is a certain ephemerality about an audiobook, that once a passage has passed through my ears it’s gone. Though I haven’t tried, I can’t imagine scrubbing through one to find said passage, let alone to quote from it. For someone old enough to remember blackened hands after reading a newspaper, or the gut-wrenching disappointment upon discovering a scratch in his LP, or the ca-ching of a carriage return on a typewriter, tangible things still hold an incredible amount of attraction for me, even as slowly but surely I have replaced those things with RSS feeds, mp3s, and a writing app on my iPad. Audiobooks fall within this bittersweet pattern.

Somewhat sillier, I struggle for how to refer to this new (to me) way of “reading”, hence the scare quotes around that very word. Can I rightly say in conversation “Oh, I’ve read that book” when in fact no actual reading was involved? What kind of looks would I get if I said to someone, “Oh, I really enjoyed listening to that book.”? Will my conversation always be cluttered with qualifiers like “Well, actually I didn’t read it, I listened to it”? A semantically troubling worry, but one that also betrays a fear that the other party would view “I listened to the audiobook version” as only slightly less offensive than “I read the Cliffs Notes for it.”

One definite casualty of this newfound interests is that I no longer have time (or much interest, frankly) in podcasts, and have ceased listening to any of them sans one (the Guardian’s Football Weekly). So I’m no longer as up-to-date on the various Apple and other geekery I used to get via various 5by5 podcasts, the assorted zombie ephemera gleaned from any of three different Walking Dead podcasts I used to listen to, nor as up-to-date on Major League Baseball as ESPN’s daily baseball podcast used to keep me. Oh well, I’ll survive.

Some Recommendations

I won’t go through all the audiobooks I’ve read (if you’re curious, you can see a list of them at Library Thing), but in case you are looking to take the plunge, I can recommend the following:

Heft, by Liz Moore
This has been the most enjoyable audiobook I have thus far listened to, and indeed I would say that this is a great example of what an audiobook can be. The book features two different narrators, Kirby Heyborne and Keith Szarabajka, for the two major characters in the book who speak in the first person, and each character is so brilliantly portrayed by their respective narrator that at times this feels more like a radio play than an audiobook. Of all the books I’ve listened to so far, this has been by far the most riveting. It also happens to be about themes and situations that rub very close to the bone. It’s almost unremittingly sad and yet uplifting too.

Cooked by Michael Pollan
This is Pollan’s newest book, and he himself reads it. I had read The Omnivore’s Dilemma a few years ago, and loved the way Pollan could discuss the politics of food without ever becoming strident, and Cooked is no different. His narration is very easy-going, yet still manages to allow his passions to come to the fore. Surely not all authors make good readers of their own material, but Pollan most definitely is one.

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene
This 1951 Greene novel is read by actor Colin Firth. While I had some problems with the novel — I’m not a big fan of overly religious themes — what makes this audiobook is actor Colin Firth’s narration. If every book requiring a British male voice was read by Firth, I would die a very happy audiobook listener.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
This bleak but incredibly heartfelt novel is made all the more so by Tom Stechschulte’s brilliant narration. Nothing much happens story-wise — even more so for me, having seen the film adaptation first — but the whole thing is riveting. Of course McCarthy is responsible for much of that, but Stechschulte deserves some credit as well. His narration of McCarthy’s early novel Child of God is equally brilliant. What I said above about Firth doing every British male voice I could also say about Stechschulte for American male voices.

Of the 10 books I’ve read (er, listened to) so far, I’ve only experienced one dud, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, narrated by John Lee. While Lee is certainly an accomplished narrator, he decided to read any quote attributed to a German in a faux-German accent, any quote from a Frenchman in a faux-French accent, and so on. It really was B-movie stuff, and detracted horribly from any pleasure I might have gained from the book (and Tuchman uses a lot of direct quotes from the various combatants). That, and the fact that the book was just far too detailed to follow along in audio format, made this a less than enjoyable experience, one I couldn’t wait to end. The experience gives me pause when considering other history books, which is too bad since the genre is one of my favorites.