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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The dark truth at the heart of Modiano's fiction

Patrick Modiano is the quintessential European (French) writer, and good evidence of that is his recent collection from Yale UP of three novellas, each of which had been published separartely between about 1988-1994, roughly; read the first in the collection last night, called Afterimage - but the translator is taking some liberty there, as the original title was Chien de printemps, i.e., either Spring Dog or Dog of Spring, take your pick - a dog does play a very minor role in the story (a stray follows the central character, Jansen, into his Paris apartment and then is seen no more) and you know what, Afterimage is a far better title so let's let it go at that: Story is by an "unnamed" narrator who, circa 1990, is recalling a photographer he met and befriended back in the '60s - the photog, Jansen, took a pic of the narrator and his then-girlfriend and asked if he could use them in a photo shoot he was hired to do for a US mag., and the friendship began. The much younger narrator goes to the photg's apartment, very sparsely furnished; he takes on the task of cataloging the photog's complete works, stills carefully labeled but stuffed into three suitcases. The narrator has full use of the apartment, and Jansen is almost never there - but people call for him, ask for him, especially a young woman w/ whom he'd apparently had a brief affair. There's another woman as well, Charlotte (I think), and strangely the narrator recalls that he knew Charlotte quite well when he was very young. Eventually, Jansen leaves for Mexico, leaving everything behind, and falling out of the narrator's life - and he's unable to reconnect, even as he searches for some of Jansen's friends whom he'd met along the way. At one moment, the narrator strangely observes that maybe his name is Jansen as well, and maybe he is Jansen. OK so we get the very European narration about narration, narrators within narrators - and we can see why Paul Auster is the only contemporary American writer truly embraced by the French. But this novella if we can call it that has a much darker truth behind it than do most of Auster's jeux: Modiano is of the generation that survived, barely, the Occupation - and we can begin to understand his obsession with disappearance: Not only can a character like Jansen just disappear, vanish at will, erase himself - so many people in France in the 1940s disappeared, and against their will - but the darker question is: Can the history of French collaboration, and of Nazi oppression, just disappear from memory?Can history be erased? Can we live without responsibility for our action, or inaction?

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