Review Blog

Sep 03 2015

Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano, trans. by Phoebe Western-Evans

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Text, 2015,ISBN 9781925240108
Little Jewel by Patrick Modiano, trans. by Phoebe Western-Evans
Text, 2015, ISBN 9781925240115
(Age: Senior secondary) Patrick Modiano is the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature. In the reviewed titles his themes of memory and loss are teased out in the experiences of two young narrators, the eponymous Little Jewel and the other nameless. The main characters restlessly traverse the streets of Paris on foot or by Metro or train; they wait in waiting rooms or bars for hints about their past and their futures. Key events from their childhoods are eventually remembered as they follow back and forth significant threads of thought. The elusive dread that is part of movie director David Lynch's work is similar to the fear of knowledge and the questioning of reality that is evoked in these novels. The narrators experience similar events, the smell of ether, the dog that was lost in childhood, the shabby overcoats that point to knowledge of the sinister parent who has in each case disappeared. Little seems certain in their lives as their thoughts move back and forth in time and their bodies from place to place. These are city dwellers, and they list the streets they restlessly walk, but to them landscape and country places seem critical for identity. Much of the action is dream-like but is anchored in precise locations, the country towns from childhood, the apartment rooms that they may have stayed in and the places they may escape to.
The main character in Little Jewel, nineteen-year-old Therese, is waiting in the Metro when she sees a woman in a yellow coat who she feels may be her mother. As she follows the woman who is obviously impoverished Therese remembers details about her and their life together. Her mother was an actress and dancer and had once been in a movie with Therese whom she called Little Jewel. The career of neither developed and the little girl is abandoned to friends of her mother. This story is remembered over time when Therese becomes a companion to a little girl whose parents are cold and neglectful. When the child wants a dog as a companion the mother orders Therese to put a stop to this. Therese remembers a dog she herself had as a child, a dog that her mother callously abandoned. When Therese nearly faints she is resuscitated with a whiff of ether which reminds her of a childhood incident when she was taken to nuns after an accident. The nuns treat her with ether and lots of kindness. The little girl and her parents who increasingly seem untrustworthy and cruel disappear and Therese is again abandoned. Meanwhile she learns that the woman in the yellow coat is her mother and is known as Death Cheater or the Kraut. Instead of confronting her Therese turns from the past to the comfort of suicide, but is saved and in a room of newborns (the hospital has run out of beds) begins life again, supported by several friends.
Paris Nocturne begins with a minor car crash. The nameless 21-year-old narrator is hit and slightly injured by a 'sea-green Fiat' driven by a young blonde woman. When they are both taken to hospital a bond seems to be established, but a heavily built dark man, Soliere, seems determined that the relationship should not develop. The smell of ether in the hospital reminds the narrator of an incident from his past and the reader begins to learn of his unhappy childhood, when he was raised by an untrustworthy father in a series of hotel rooms. This culminated in his father calling the police chief to take the boy, now aged seventeen, away as a nuisance. This humiliating encounter perhaps resulted in other memories being suppressed, but Soliere reminds the narrator of his father and he now remembers meetings in specific cafes. His father became more dishevelled until finally they no longer met. The Narrator's memory of specific streets and rooms seems to assure him of his own reality. He learns the name of the car's driver and becomes obsessed with finding her. Events like encounters with Soliere seem sinister and designed to point him away from her, and the chronology is not always clear as memories are intertwined with the present. One night the narrator follows a black dog which seems to be the one he had as a child. The streets seem to become darker and Soliere more sinister, but when he finds the driver, Jacqueline Beausergent, her calm and confident manner reassures him and he is further soothed by her memories of a village near one that he had stayed in as a child. He seems ready to accept happiness.
In both novels there are the recurring elements of the colour that provokes memory, the lost dog that symbolises a loss of love and security, ether that promises safety in loss of memory and escape and characters that parallel each other in terms of character and action. Both concern the helplessness and unhappiness of children, the disconnect between young adults and their social environment and the nature of memory, in a way that is Proustian. The characters are restless and rootless as they move through the streets of Paris, seen here as both seedy and sinister. The language is deceptively simple but rich in metaphor. The novels are short but reward close reading and could be used by senior students.
Jenny Hamilton

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