Book Review: Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano

Honeymoon

Book Cover for Honeymoon by Patrick Mondiano

It is perhaps a sad testimony to how parochial my reading has become.  There was once a time where I knew almost every Nobel Prize for Literature winner–would have yearly bets with colleagues and follow the London odds makers’ short lists.  And while my knowledge was primarily eurocentric/american, I was an early reader of the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz before he won and I understood that his time was eminent and important. (My sister, after a trip to Egypt, had turned me on to him. I don’t know how, but she brought me back two uncorrected proofs of his novels.)

But again, I am increasingly ignorant of the world’s literature.

Which is why discovering Patrick Modiano is such a wonderful treat. The French Modiano is the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature winner. And until a New Yorker review of his most recent novel, I had not heard of him nor his winning. Lately, I must have my head very deeply buried in the sand.

patrick-modiano-illustration

Patrick Modiano illustration by Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Media

Honeymoon (published in 1990 in France/1995 in the U.S.) is the novel I decided to start out on. The language is direct, bare and sparse–reminding me much of the first half of Camus’ The Stranger. But the story is intricate and convoluted, told in such an honest style that makes the intricacies and coincidences of life seem matter-of-fact.

There are two stories that braid themselves around two middle and connected ones. On the first page the narrator discovers that a woman in the hotel in Milan where he is staying has committed suicide.  He then learns that he had known her once decades when she and her husband had picked him up hitchhiking and had taken him in and cared for him for several days.

This coincidence sets the man on a quest–of sorts. After his wife and his business partner (her lover) drop him off at the airport where he is to fly to Rio de Janeiro for business, he disappears. He takes a plane back to Milan and then returns to Paris, where he goes to ground and hides in the outer arrondissements.

His purpose is to make sense of the woman’s suicide, of her life.

We find that he has been obsessed with this couple for a long time, ever since his youth, long before the knowledge of her death. He has taken numerous notes, cut out clippings, and prepared to write a memoir of the couple, and so he tells us of their hardships and trials during the Nazi occupation of France.

While we at the same time are following his exploits in the Parisian neighborhoods, aware of his wife’s comings and goings, and preparing for a new life in his rougher world.

All the plot threads, in a way, revolve around a single newspaper clipping from the 1940s searching for the woman who suddenly went missing when she was sixteen years old. (From what I have learned, the actual clipping is what sent Modiano himself to fashion his story.) She had simply stepped out of the Metro and  moved from one world–a constricting and dangerous world in Nazi occupied Paris–to another. Her abrupt relocation parallels the narrator’s who moves from his bourgeoise life as a documentary filmmaker married to a high-fashion model to an uncertain world in the boondocks of Paris, seeking for understanding of the couple who once showed him much kindness.

I said that I had started out on Patrick Modiano by selecting Honeymoon It is only a starting point. I look forward to picking up another.

 

Book Review: Dirty Snow by George Simenon–Dostoyevsky with a touch of Kafka…only bleaker.

dirtysnow

A colleague of mine passed on a book that he liked very much. Dirty Snow by the prolific Belgian writer, George Simenon. I had read several of Simenon’s detective novels, gritty tales that featured the Parisian detective Maigret. The Maigret novels–I believe there are over fifty of them—seemed superior to most in that genre, filled with a certain ennui and jaded acceptance that went beyond the cynical aloofness of his American counterparts or the aloof cynicism of his more modern offspring. And to be honest, they were good reads.

georgesimenon

George Simenon

Although I had read only the Maigret novels, I knew that Simenon wrote other sorts of novels. I had always heard them referred to as “philosophical” novels, though the French label them as “psychological” novels. And the French are closer to the truth, here.

And when my colleague passed on to me Dirty Snow, he did so with the caveat that it was “extremely grim” although oddly humanistic.

Dirty Snow is the story of Frank Friedmaier making his way through his occupied city.  We never know who the occupiers are and where the city is. When he is imprisoned, his captors, his location, and his crime are never identified. All of this, gives the novel a certain Kafkaesque feeling. And although time moves forward throughout the seasons, there seems always to be piles of soiled, stained, and dirtied snow.

And yet it was Crime and Punishment that I thought of immediately. Frank–who may be the most amoral, sociopath I have come across in my reading, and I know Burgess’s Alex and Ellis’s Bateman–begins the novel looking to kill his first person. There is no reason for, no gain from this murder–it is, as he says, like losing his virginity: “Losing his virginity, his actual virginity, hadn’t meant very much to Frank. He had been in the right place. … And for Frank, who was nineteen, to kill his first man was another loss of virginity hardly any more disturbing than the first. And like the first, it wasn’t premeditated.”  Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, he needs little push to kill his victim. Yet, there the similarity ends.  For Raskolnikov punishes himself, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically for the crime he committed.  Frank feels nothing. And soon he kills again…an old woman in his childhood village who recognized him in the course of a burglary.

But the murders are not his greatest crime. That is reserved for the sweet and loving Sissy who lives across the hall from the brothel that Frank’s mother runs and where Frank lives.  (Sissy mirrors very closely Raskolnikov’s Sophia in her love and faithfulness to Frank.)  Frank’s relations with women are brutal at best–indeed all the women in the novel seem mistreated one way or another.  He takes full advantage of his mother’s prostitutes, coldly, quickly and unemotionally, and this is the way he treats Sissy as well, deceiving her into a situation where she is nearly raped by his drinking associate.

One might say there is no reason for Frank’s viciousness, but that would be inaccurate. There is no “motive,” no “purpose” for his ferocity. But there is a reason, and Simenon attempts to suggest it subtly. Frank’s mother abandoned him to a wet-nurse so she could “ply her trade” and visited only occasional. He never knew his father, only the brutality of both life and the State.  Two men are offered as father surrogates in the novel: one, a Maigret-like inspector who turns a blind eye to Frank’s mother’s occupation and who very well may be his biological father and Sissy’s father, Holst, who Frank is drawn to from the beginning, who sees Frank in the alleyway on his first kill, and who offers him forgiveness at the end.

But many men have similar upbringings and few turn out as nihilistic, amoral, and unfeeling as Frank.  To his interrogator he says at the end: “I am not a fanatic, an agitator, or a patriot. I am a piece of shit.” There is nothing.  Yet the flip side of that is that there is nothing the State offers either.  They have not arrested him for the murders or the burglary. They have brought him in, they torture him merely for information.  And here, in the claustrophobic room where he is questioned, one remembers a similar room–Room 101 in Orwell’s 1984. But Frank is no Winston Smith either; there is no romantic dream of something better, no fervid belief in the ultimate progress of what is right.  There is only Frank, solipsistic and brutal Frank.

Simenon’s novel is fascinating. His hero is repellent. And I can’t stop thinking about neither it nor him… It’s sort of like wearing wet shoes, soaked through by dirty snow.