Ring Roads, by Patrick Modiano
Patrick Modiano is a French novelist and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. The cover of Ring Roads (Les Boulevards de Ceinture, in its original version and language) has a statement in red: ‘A Marcel Proust of our time’ by Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy. I don’t know Peter Englund (and, by the way, his being Permanent Secretary is really intriguing: would it survive any circumstance, civil, penal or moral? Also, what if he becomes stricken by arteriosclerosis or another disabling disease? And eventually: what kind of career path do you need to become a Permanent something? Or is it by divine will?). Sorry for the digression; I’m always curious about titles, and after Louis XIV and the French Revolution, even the position of a king shouldn’t be considered permanent, I guess. Speaking about titles written down on business cards, I remember a former ambassador who landed in Hong Kong four years ago to sell a piece of contaminated land near Venice to Chinese investors. He was Amministratore Delegato dal Sindaco per gli Affari Speciali, or delegated by the mayor for special affairs. The whole title appears like a form of preventive confession, doesn’t it? I can add that the mayor went to jail a few months later, but that is another story.
Sorry for the further digression; it is a clear indication of senility. However — you know the arts of marketing — coming back to the book, the link between Proust and Modiano drew my attention and I tried to read the novel using that key. Only the beginning of the account, I’d say, because as the reading went on, I was caught by the power of Modiano’s prose. Without doubt and starting from the first phrases: ‘The heaviest of the three is my father, though he was so thin back then. Muraille is leaning towards him as if whispering something. Marcheret stands in the background with a half-smile, puffing out his chest a little, his hands gripping the lapels of his jacket.’
I read the entire novel in one go (actually, it is a short account of 146 pages), never finding any resonance with Proust, I have to say. But that doesn’t mean Peter Englund is wrong. Maybe Modiano’s work as a whole reminds him of Proust, why not? I have read only this one book, and so I have to suspend my judgement.
Ring Roads, for which Modiano was awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Roman (1972), tells the story of a young Jewish man, Serge, during the Occupation of France. He is in search of his father, Chalva, who disappeared ten years earlier. Serge finds Chalva in the underbrush of a dark Paris, surrounded by black marketers, anti-Semitic businessmen and prostitutes. The relationship between Chalva and his partners, or rather his bosses, who don’t care about his interests and health, is splendidly analysed by Modiano, as well as the relationship between the son and the father, which is more complicated and surprising.
Of course, the novel is a dig into memory and consequently into the self. And you can recognise a sort of obsession too about the past. However, looking for similitudes, Ring Roads doesn’t focus on the multiplicity of perspectives and the formation of experience, or on the relationship between experience, memory and writing, as in Proust’s work, where the narrator is central, but on the effort to preserve a world, that of the Occupation of France, precisely, by investigating its characters with hypnotic care. In this sense – and in this particular novel, I repeat – Modiano reminds me of Flaubert more than Proust. Flaubert, in fact, writes a phrase; then he clarifies it using another phrase, which in turn is enriched by a third one, which explains the first two. And so on. Nabokov called it “process by layers”. Modiano’s process is not based on the phrases, but he uses layers of different paragraphs or, better, chapters.
Chalva’s character, for example, starting from that ‘The heaviest of the three is my father, though he was so thin back then’, acquires substance chapter after chapter, as if Modiano were never too tired to investigate it throughout the development of the story, whatever event was happening. By the way, this method is the precise opposite of the modern “airport literature”, which requires a character to be clearly defined in the first ten pages, more or less, of the book.
This process of addition is continuous and somehow maniacal, and represents the strongest note of his literary style. Defining a writing style as the unique way, the unique manner in which the writer uses the tools of syntax, morphology, lexicon and rhetoric, Modiano’s style is apparently and deceptively simple. Actually, an underground tension pervades the flow of writing, as well as a form of patience and caution becomes clearly perceptible. Then, the extreme focus/attention used by Modiano turns out to be the leitmotif of the entire account.
‘Suppose they notice that you’ve given them the slip?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
Coming from you, always so timid, so servile towards them, the remark astonished me … For the first time, you appeared relaxed. We had turned up the Chemin du Bornage. You were whistling and you even attempted a tango step; and I was fast succumbing to a suspicious state of euphoria. You said: ‘Come and take a tour of my house,’ as if were the most natural thing in the world.
At this point, I realise I’m dreaming, and so I avoid any sudden gestures for fear of walking. We cross the overgrown garden, step into the hall and you double-lock the door. You nod towards various overcoats lying on the floor.
‘Put one on, it’s freezing here.’
It’s true. My teeth are chattering. You still don’t really know your way around because you have difficulty in finding the light switch. A sofa, a few wing chairs, armchairs covered with dustsheets. There are several bulbs missing from the ceiling light. On a chest of drawers, between the two windows, a bunch of dried flowers. I presume that you usually avoid this room, but that tonight you wanted to do honour me. We stand there, both of us embarrassed. Finally you say:
‘Sit down, I’ll go and make some tea.’
I sit on one of the armchairs. The problem with dust covers is that you have to balance carefully so as not to slip. In front of me, three engravings of pastoral scenes in the eighteenth-century style. I can’t make out of the details behind the dusty glass. I wait, and the faded décor reminds me of the dentist’s living room on the Rue de Penthièvre where I once sought refuge to avoid an identity check. The furniture was covered with dust sheets, like this. From the window, I watched the police cordon off the street, the police van was parked a little farther on. Neither the dentist nor the old woman who had opened the door to me showed any sign of life. Towards eleven o’clock that night, I crept out on tiptoe, and ran down the deserted street.”
I want to read other novels by Modiano, those translated by Mark Polizzotti (Les Boulevards de Ceinture is translated by Caroline Hillier in 1974 and then revised by Frank Wynne in 2015), to better understand this Nobel prizewinner and to enter his mind. My first impression is highly positive. From this book, Modiano appears to be a powerful, conservative vates of memory, strongly focused on the reconstruction of a forgotten world. I still don’t understand what his final goal is or the initial motive. I’ll check.