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

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Saturday, April 9, 2016

What makes Patrick Modiano's fiction so compelling?

A few further thoughts on Patrick Modiano, having finished treading he collection Suspended Sentences, as to what makes his work so compelling and unusual: he is above all else a writer of contradictions. You start reading any of his works (I've read 4 now) and it feels like you're entering an old-fashioned noirish crime or detective story - the narrator is trying to unlock some secret, usually from his past - how did the young couple that used to live in his building die? who are the people to whom he was entrusted as a 10-year-old while his parents were away for a year? - and we gradually realize that we will never get to an answer or conclusion, that these questions, like much of life, are unanswerable and unknowable. But the narrator's attempt to uncover past secrets leas him down unanticipated byways - almost always involving a complex network of Paris streets and neighborhoods, all w/ strange names, all of them dark and lonely, often industrial or commercial, far off from the areas tourists see, and sometimes the neighborhoods are long gone but he recollects visits from his youth (touches of Sebald here) - and through his searches he approaches a deeper mystery: What did his father do during the war and the Occupation? He keeps approaching the knowledge that his father was a gangster and that the gangs were collaborators - but he never quite gets the details in order - people keep vanishing, from his world and from his memory. And that pushes him to an even deeper and more unsettling question: What did France do during the war and the Occupation? How many people "disappeared"? Truth always just eludes him, however - he meets characters who seem to have a story to tell, but their identities are always slippery, living under false names, with stolen IDs, getting by in the present (in this volume, the early 1990s) by erasing their own histories. Modiano creates many great scenes and encounters, but they often lead the narrative not to revelations and destinations but to detours and blind alleys. Modiano is clearly not a writer for all tastes, but he has established his place somewhere between the noir tradition of American detective fiction and the postmodernism of French intellectuals of the 80s and 90s, a place all his own.

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