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

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Modiano's evolving style

To summarize or try to describe Patrick Modiano's 1969 novel (his 2nd), The Night Watch (or Night Rounds) would make it sound like a thriller or spy novel or adventure story about a double (or triple) agent - the protagonist/narrator - I don't think we ever learn his name - is a young man in Paris during the occupation, has time on his hands, gets sucked into life with a gang of thugs and becomes attempt at theft and extortion, the leader of the gang forms an alliance with the Nazis, which brings the narrator great wealth as the gang gets cut in on every deal, but the narrator is assigned to infiltrate a resistance group - he gains (too) easy access to the group but instead of infiltrating he gives false reports back to his gang - until eventually they get onto him and torture him and extract info about the resistance, and he eventually flees across the border to Switzerland (or tries to). Yes, it could make a good, if fairly typical movie - but Modiano's tone throughout is comic-satiric and sometimes high camp: the characters with the odd names, the scenes that unfold in dream-like, surreal fashion, the high improbability of much of the action, the picaresque qualities of the narrator, and the general air of moral indifference. You can see how right from the outset of his career he was pushing boundaries and defying expectations, but I think it took him a while to find his real format, which was, and is, noir detective fiction in search of (or in service of) deeper literary, psychological, and historic truths. What we see emerging in this novel are: obsession with the gangs and profiteers during the Occupation, disappearing parents, shame and guilt about survival during the Occupation, willful amnesia about the war years, the need for flight and escape (to neutral territory), obsession with names of Parisian streets and neighborhoods. As he sheds some of the literary showmanship and antic narration, his style becomes sharper, more penetrating, more focused.

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