Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature is a momentous event, when the world’s stage clarifies a particular writer’s works into a cohesive, powerful body and then celebrates it. But even this prize, too, and its accolades, fades with the relentless march of new stuff: new books, new “literary events,” new sequels or endings of trilogies, new comebacks from old authors. Not to mention all the movies, games, and albums that come out. Daniel Handler at The Believer has an entire column dedicated to reading old Nobel laureates, and while it may be a good resource to find great old books, the laureates themselves appear as lost treasures, excluded from traditional canons and instead given this badge of distinction.
Patrick Modiano won the Nobel for Literature in 2014, and the reaction from many Americans (myself included) could be aptly described as fitting, if by “fitting” I mean fitting into the crux of his work and life (the latter of which I won’t touch on save to say that, in true Modiano style, it requires a lot of digging and isn’t quite fulfilling). Modiano delves into stories of characters reaching into their own histories—whether on a personal or communal level—and stitches these searches together with documents. The tension (and, indeed, irony) that arises here gives the novels their emotional heft: the characters are filled with doubts, gaps, and are looking for proof; the documents, forms, and conversations are concrete proof but lack any sort of context.
“Me? I’m following something up.”
“Following something up?”
“Yes. My past.”
I had said this rather portentiously and it made him smile.
This is certainly the case with Missing Person, published in 1978 and with a 1980 translation by Daniel Weissbort. The novel follows Guy Roland, amnesiac detective, as he decides to turn his sleuthing skills inward once his boss, Hutte, shutters the detective agency where Guy works. His search takes him from a community of Russian emigres in Paris to the snowy resort of Megève all the way to Bora Bora. And on his journey he meets the people who filled his supposed prior life: his girlfriend, a French model who he lost touch with at a border crossing; an old deceased friend, recollected through a photograph and brought to life by her despondent pianist husband; another friend, a former jockey with a disposition more spooked than the horses he used to ride.
Modiano’s style, filtered through Weissbort’s translation, is tight and without flourish, with some chapters dedicated solely to lists of addresses. Yet this simplicity by intent leaves gaps (literally, in dialogue; spatially, across the 47 chapters; and formally with a lack of adjectives and adverbs) through which the reader can sense longing, a lack of resolution. Similar to the way that the films of Ingmar Bergman may be better appreciated outside of Sweden, where they have to be read via subtitles as opposed to just heard, the lack of embellishment enhances the seriousness and intent of the writing, even as it keeps it at a distance.
I felt a different sense of dislocation and searching, one more meta-fictional than Guy’s/Pedro’s: my own awareness of the exoduses from Paris during the Occupation so lacking, I looked for clues, signifiers, in Modiano’s spare writing. Much as I’m sure he initially felt, I couldn’t make sense of the ephemera—the addresses, the phone numbers, the overheard conversations—and what was left to me was an overarching sense of sadness and loss, of an issue skirted around because of its raw pain.
“Is it really my life I’m tracking down? Or someone else’s into which I have somehow infiltrated myself?”
But on another, more general level, I realized the kind of searching I was doing, that we all do, when we read: we become familiarized with the stories, the goings-on of the characters, their peculiar traits. Aren’t we interjecting ourselves into their lives, ones which we had no place in at the novel’s start and which we have only a dim awareness of by its end? Of course, that may be the entire point of reading, to develop this awareness and understanding, and perhaps with it, empathy, but I appreciate the warning call Modiano raises, that our searches may be in vain, our hope for closure confounded.
Guy/Pedro certainly exists in this flux, and by the novel’s end he has the pieces to his prior life, but is still missing the frame with which to organize them. In a late letter to Hutte he voices this concern: “Until now, everything has seemed so chaotic, so fragmented … Scraps, shreds have come to light as a result of my searches … But then that is perhaps what a life amounts to … Is it really my life I’m tracking down? Or someone else’s into which I have somehow infiltrated myself?” The ghosts in Guy’s/Pedro’s story linger, but is he the right person to try to stir them?
Featured image: “Acid Victorian Age” by Giacomo Carmagnola