Roger Brunyate's Reviews > Souvenirs dormants

Souvenirs dormants by Patrick Modiano
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it was amazing
bookshelves: nobel-laureates, other-languages
Recommended to Roger by: Ilse
Recommended for: Friederike Knabe

The Eternal Return of the Same
On one of those stalls by the Seine, the title of a book caught my attention: The Time of Encounters. It was a period of strange encouters for me also, that time in the distant past….*
The flavor is as unmistakable as the whiff of Gitanes. Who but Patrick Modiano would start a book that way, responding to a trivial trigger, delving deeply into a half-remembered past? Let's go a little farther on the same page:
[…] I could start by recalling Sunday evenings. They were always sources of apprehension, as for all those who have had to return to boarding school, in winter, at the end of the afternoon, in the falling dusk. The feeling will pursue them in their dreams, possibly for their entire lives. On Sunday evenings, several people would gather in Martine Hayward's apartment, and I found myself among them. I was twenty, and did not feel entirely at ease. A sense of guilt took hold of me, as though I were still a schoolboy and, instead of going back to school, I had run away.*
While reading, I had made a long list of passages to quote, and may indeed get to a few more of them, but I found myself writing out this paragraph from the first page instead. It really doesn't matter. For to read Modiano is to enter a fractal universe, where any one passage seems to contain all others. And not just in the one book; each one contains memories of those before it. In this one, for instance, in apparently random lists of names, you encounter the names Stioppa, Caisley, and Guy Lavigne. The last two names crop up in Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue ("In the Cafe of Lost Youth"); the first recalls Rue des boutiques obscures (translated as "Missing Person"). I am not saying that these are the same people in this later book—none of the three actually appears—merely that Modiano sows his narrative with details that are vaguely familiar; déjà vu might be the author's middle name.
"You surely remember." Yes, certainly. But I also have memories of things in my life, of certain persons that I have forced myself to forget. I thought I had succeeded, but sometimes after decades have passed they will surface unexpectedly like drowned bodies, at a bend in the street, at certain times in the day.*
Modiano has many ways to conjure the past. In many of his books, though a little less so here, there is his meticulous gazetteer of Paris streets; when his narrator says he is extraordinarily sensitive to the spirit of a place, he isn't kidding. Then there is his catalogue of proper names, often strung together in lists. Some names are made up; some, as we have seen, recall his earlier fiction; some are shady figures from the real past—the point is that you are never sure which is which until you look them up. And particularly important in this novella are his references to books, almost all of which are real. The narrator will enter a room which has no furniture but a couch and a bookcase, and head straight for the books, because the titles will reveal something important. Le Temps des rencontres, for example, the book in the first sentence, is a 1948 novel by Michel Zéraffa. Another that crops up again and again is Dreams and How to Guide Them by Hervey de Saint-Denys; much of the novel seems to take place in a guided dream—and it plunged me into a navigated dream world of my own last night after I put it down, darn it! A third ubiquitous book is The Eternal Return of the Same, a concept of Nietzsche's that could hardly be a better statement of the fractal obsessiveness of Modiano's writing.

It is known that much of what originally drove Modiano to investigate the past is to uncover his father who appears to have been a black marketeer and, though a Jew, a Gestapo collaborator in the Occupation. His father makes a brief appearance here too, or rather the narrator's, but as the author and his ficitonal character are both writers and both born in the same year, they are to all all intents and purposes identical:
"I will explain everything," she told me on the phone. And for several days after, a voice getting ever more distant repeated that phrase in my dreams. Yes, I wanted to meet her, because I hoped she would indeed explain things. Perhaps what she said would help me better understand my father, this stranger who walked in silence by my side, down the long paths of the Bois de Boulogne.*
The "she" is this passage is "Stioppa's daughter," a link with the distant past whom he never actually meets. The young woman he does meet, Geneviève Dalame, is described more than once as appearing to "walk at her own side," just like the absent father. In a half-real dream, she will lead him to a woman in an empty apartment who studies the occult, bring him into contact with several slightly sinister men, and involve him in a death that may or may not be murder. She will disappear for a time, only to resurface. There is a faintly erotic air to their relationship—as indeed there is to all his relationships with women, even when they are older—but we never know if anything happens. Instead, we walk through the streets of Paris at the side of an enigmatic woman who walks by her own side, both of us at the side of an aging author who is trying to become one with his younger self, but can never quite do so.

Rating? This is so difficult with Modiano, because the usual criteria hardly apply. Has he turned over any new material? No. But if you're a Modiano addict, that is precisely the point. "The Eternal Return of the Same"—Nietzsche puts it pretty well.

*Modiano's 2017 novel has not yet been published in English. The translations here are therefore my own.
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Reading Progress

January 2, 2018 – Started Reading
January 2, 2018 – Shelved
January 3, 2018 – Finished Reading
January 4, 2018 – Shelved as: nobel-laureates
January 4, 2018 – Shelved as: other-languages

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Fergus (new)

Fergus Thanks for your incisive comments. The world of Modiano is now coming out of the fog for me just like the city of Bruges, "pli selon pli...." It is of course tempting to place him with Socrates in the First Circle. I had thought he had more redemptive qualities, evinced by his childlike candour in his interviews, which would make him more aptly a companion of Belacqua on the first terrace of the Holy Mountain...
So I still wonder, vainly of course - because the living are, by definition, eschatologically a work in progress.


Roger Brunyate Well, Fergus, you are ahead of me in much of that. I have never heard or read a Modiano interview, and Dante is by now a long distant companion. I don't see much possibility of redemption in Modiano, because that would surely involve closure, and closure is absolutely not his thing. What on earth would he be able to write after achieving it? Roger.


Patrizia Great review, Roger. I think you captured Modiano’s essence


Roger Brunyate Fergus, again: there is redemption of a kind in Dora Bruder, but then, as I said before, that stands rather outside the main line of Modiano's works. Not a literal redemption, though; he cannot undo the Holocaust, in which his father may have been a collaborator. But he can give dignity to one of its victims, and, by refusing to fictionalize her, restore her to a life that is entirely her own. Roger.


Roger Brunyate Patrizia wrote: "Great review, Roger. I think you captured Modiano’s essence."

Thank you, Patrizia. He really captures his own essence, though, doesn't he? R.


message 6: by Fergus (new)

Fergus Well, in the military environment in which I pursued my civilian career, had this elusive writer worked there... I believe his superiors would have suspected a diagnosis of PTSD. And as our own General Romeo Dallaire found out after living amidst the Rwandan genocide, though not curable it is treatable, through hard work and faith. Your background summary of Modiano' s early life prompts me to guess along thosr lines. And quite possibly Mother Teresa encountered a smilar sort of aporia, which she transcended - not conquered - in line with the nature of the prognosis. And her own transcendence was of course one of true sanctity.


The Reading Bibliophile Ah, Modiano <3


message 8: by Fergus (new)

Fergus Roger, by redemption I don't mean closure, but a recurring pattern of what Derrida termed "lovence" (I'm sorry, I don't know the French word from which this neological translation was made) in one's life - which finds, for me at any rate, its theoloogical equivalent in the compassion that arises from supernatural grace. And, for me as well, this is the "Paradiso" that the supremely intellectual writer Dante envisioned.


message 9: by Lauren (new)

Lauren I am working my way wandering my way through Patrick Modianos books.I am coming to them late in life and wish I had found him earlier? some i am reading in french some translated . I am learning how to follow his train of thought and his asides and find the books wonderful. I love his unabashed romance with women and with Paris ,just read his book Pedigree which explains his upbringing and his family.Its quite good getting lost in his books.


Friederike Knabe Intriguing review, Roger! It seems that le temps des rencontres has not only captivated the narrator but also the reader. You capture this in a way that it draws me for one immediately back into the Modiano atmosphere and world.


Roger Brunyate Yes, Lauren, I agree. I also have mixed languages in reading him, largely because the English versions are often cheaper. But when I go back to the French, as here, I wonder why I would try anything else. His style is easy to understand (up to the point where you can’t understand his weird mind) and his over- and under-tones work so much better in his own language. But he is very difficult to translate! R.


Roger Brunyate Thanks, Friederike. I truly believe he is an addiction. R.


message 13: by Ilse (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ilse A most intriguing write-up, Roger - making me, as a fellow Modiano addict - eager to read it soon too - and yes, your quotes, the vague encounters, it is like reading another chapter of a never-ending story - but 'the eternal return of the same', in the case of Modiano maybe is just what the addict longs for (although I don't seem to remember references to books from his other novels).


Roger Brunyate Thank you, Ilse. I agree; such an extensive use of book titles (there are many more) seems a new device. Something that one associates more with Roberto Bolaño. R.


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