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

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Friday, December 30, 2016

Modiano's novel as a counterpoint to Suite Francaise

Patrick Modiano's early novel Missing Person tells its story by indirection. On the surface, it's a detective story - the narrator, Guy (has assumed name) is in search of his own lost identity; his entire past is obliterated from his mind, and he has only a few clues to help him uncover the mystery of his life. He follows these clues, step by step, in an improbably chain of circumstance and coincidence - everyone he meets is willing to speak with him, they all seem to have a collection of old photos that they're willing to give to him, he hits no dead ends, etc. - that would derail this novel if it were meant to be a traditional detective story. But it's not. The cascade of clues and the linear plot guide us through a world of pre-war Paris, populated by night-club singers, bartenders and waiters, fashion photographers, artists and intellectuals, criminals, and emigres. As this world comes together, and as Guy finds various people who knew him in his prewar life but whom he doesn't recognize at all, we in turn recognize that this novel is about a national amnesia, about how France itself has erased its past, how, mysteriously, no one who survived the war is able to remember exactly how they did so. As this is a novel of indirection, Modiano drops only a few hints as to his real theme: Guy does learn that he worked in a foreign embassy of a Latin American country, he finds various pieces of correspondence about a fake Dominican passport and about the need to be able to cross borders. He also learns that his late wife - again, he has no actual memory of her or of their marriage, except what occurs to him in a few flashes - disappeared somewhere near the Swiss border (she had gone to the Alpine French village of Megeve). This is my 2nd time through the novel, so I know it will end with an attempt at another border crossing into Switzerland - but I think what we're seeing here are the outsiders, artists, and criminals in Paris looking for a way to survive; it's in a way the counterpoint to the few memoirs and novels of the experience of the exiled - Suite Francaise being the most recent to emerge, and probably the best.

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