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I’ve read a book by Modiano

December 6, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Dimanches d’août by Patrick Modiano (1986) Not available in English. (yet)

Modiano_DimanchesSo Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in literature this year. It was as surprising as having a French laureate for the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. I had never read Modiano because of the image I had of him. I imagined his books as boring ramblings of white men distressed by their middle age crisis, tortured and endlessly looking for the perfect woman that doesn’t exist. I looked at his books in bookstores, read the blurb and put them down. Several times.

When he won the Nobel Prize I sort of saw it as my duty as a French book blogger in the English speaking blogosphere to at least try a book by him and see. Therefore I took my wary self to a book store and bought a Modiano. The one I knew about, Rue des boutiques obscures, was not on the shelves. I discarded Place de l’Etoile because it was –again—about Paris during the Occupation and I’m sick of reading about WWII. I asked for help to the libraire, who had not read Modiano either. Some libraire he was. After reading several blurbs I picked Dimanches d’août.

We’re in Nice in the 1980s. The narrator, Jean stumbles upon an old acquaintance, Villecourt on the boulevard Gambetta. The two men are not so pleased to meet again. They have a Sylvia in common, they both come from somewhere on the banks of the Marne near Paris. It is soon very clear that Sylvia is gone, that she and Jean fled to Nice, that Villecourt used to be her lover or husband. Seeing Villecourt again will decide Jean to relate what happened. At once, the reader feels that something went wrong, that this story goes beyond the usual love triangle. This comes from the diamond that Sylvia had. It is named Croix du Sud and part of the mystery is linked to it.

In a classic Noir tale, the narrator is in a bad place –Jean ran aground in Nice and now wanders there like a broken soul—and he starts telling his story from the beginning. The reader follows how he ended up where he is. Here, Jean goes backward. From one detail to the other, we will rewind the moments and events from Nice to the banks of the Marne where it all began.

So, the verdict? Bof, as we say in French. You can’t judge a writer by one book but I wasn’t thrilled. Before reading Modiano, when I heard his name, it conveyed the image of a solitary man walking on a deserted beach in Normandy, wearing a beige wool jumper. This novel was set in Nice and the man was wandering on the Promenade des Anglais but the impression remains.

Sure, he pictures Nice and the French Riviera with talent. The story is well crafted but rather classic and I guessed part of the ending which is not a good sign. He writes well but he’s no Albert Camus or J.M.G. Le Clézio. I have only two quotes for a book of 190 pages. I had more from the 50 pages I’ve read of At Swim-Two-Birds! Still, here’s a sample:

Je me suis approché d’elle et bientôt son parfum était plus fort que l’odeur de la chambre, un parfum lourd dont je ne pouvais plus me passer, quelque chose de doux et de ténébreux, comme les liens qui nous attachaient l’un à l’autre.

I went close to her and soon her perfume was stronger that the smell of the room. It was a heavy perfume I couldn’t live without, something sweet and dark, as the bond that tied us to each other. (my translation)

Lots of writers are as good as this, no? I expect from a Nobel Prize winner to be innovative, to bring something new to literature, to have a style that looks like no one else’s. I’d like to know what prompted the Nobel Jury to grant him such a prestigious prize because after reading Dimanches d’août, I can’t figure it out. A Nobel Prize winner should let me wide eyed and mouth hanging from admiration. Next time maybe?

  1. December 6, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    When a writer has received enormous accolades it really sets up a situation where it is easy for us to be disappointed.

    I do like ruminations about interesting characters and relationships. But if a book is too predictab and unoriginal it will disappoint me too.

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    • December 7, 2014 at 3:09 pm

      To be honest, I didn’t have any particular expectations. He’s good but not a genius like Beckett or Tagore.

      Like

  2. December 7, 2014 at 12:55 am

    I’m usually not that impressed with prize winners to be honest. Makes you wonder what on earth takes place during the selection. Funnily enough I looked at a novel by this author today: Honeymoon, and I must say it sounded interesting.

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    • December 7, 2014 at 3:12 pm

      I looked at the selection of Nobel Prize winners in literature and I think the early juries were more daring.
      This year feels like reaching a mild concensus.
      He’s a good writer, that’s for sure but not better than Philippe Djian for example.

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      • December 7, 2014 at 10:37 pm

        a consensus may be the answer–and I don’t just mean for one particular year.

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        • December 8, 2014 at 10:02 pm

          There are rumours about the Goncourt: the publishers might take turn to win it and ensure sales for everyone. I don’t know if it’s true.

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  3. December 7, 2014 at 3:45 am

    I’ve found some wonderful writers via the Nobel, including Le Clezio (loved his Desert and his Wandering Star) – so I’m always open to giving them a try. Here in Oz the Yale publication of three of his novellas is available, but I’d like to read a novel because really, novels give a better idea of what an author is on about IMO. I think some will be available in January.
    BTW I have just finished The Foundling by Michel Deon. Would you say there are any resemblances in style or preoccupations?

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    • December 7, 2014 at 3:18 pm

      I want to read more by Le Clezio. I have Étoile errante at home, I know it’s excellent.
      I haven’t read the Deon but from what I’ve read in your review, I’d say it’s very different. If I had to make a comparison, I’d say the Peter Stamm I’ve just read is more like it. Simple and short sentences. A character who’s a bit aloof.
      I hope Caroline drops by, she must have read both writers and she’ll be able ti tell more.
      I’ve only read one Modiano so maybe I picked a weaker one.

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      • December 8, 2014 at 10:03 am

        Ah yes, I need to read something by Peter Stamm.

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        • December 8, 2014 at 10:05 pm

          He’s worth discovering.

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  4. December 7, 2014 at 9:05 am

    I’d read one of his books before he won the Prize ‘La petite bijou’, which was written from the point of view of a young woman in search of her birth mother – so not middle-aged man at all, and not much about the war either! I was not necessarily bowled over by the style, but I did like the book. I’ve recently read his memoirs of his childhood, which perhaps helps to explain his style: trying to be tough, unemotional, uninvolved, when talking about painful subjects. And I’m going to read ‘L’Herbe des nuits’, which sounds quite interesting. I’ll let you know how I get on…

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    • December 7, 2014 at 3:22 pm

      I think he’s good but not out-of-this-world good. He’s a bit of a literary institution here and he’s really praised.
      I’m not in a hurry to read another one but I’ll get one if I see a review that tempts me.

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  5. Vishy
    December 7, 2014 at 10:04 am

    Nice review, Emma. I have to say this, because this kind of thing has never happened before and it probably won’t ever happen again 🙂 I read a Modiano book before you did! I read ‘Rue des boutiques obscures’ last year and liked it. It was like the literary version of Robert Ludlum’s ‘The Bourne Identity’ to me. I have my suspicions that Ludlum probably took Modiano’s plot and dramatized it in his own style. But glad to know that you liked your first Modiano, though not as much as you had hoped to. I found that he wrote beautiful prose, but typically in beautiful sentences rather than in whole passages. I was also surprised that he won the Nobel this year, but I am glad he did. (My own favourite French writer for the Nobel prize is Nicole Brossard – but she is Canadian and she writes in French and so I think her chances are not pretty bright. What do you think the chances are of Nancy Huston winning the Nobel prize?)

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    • December 7, 2014 at 3:27 pm

      You will probably read other French writers before me in thr future. I’m not a big reader of French lit.

      Rue des boutiques obscures won the Prix Goncourt at the time. I haven’t read the Ludlum either.

      I’m sure it’s good, he can write but his voice doesn’t sound as unique as others’ voices. At least in the one I’ve read.

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      • December 9, 2014 at 4:48 pm

        Both ‘Rue des boutiques obscures’ and ‘The Bourne Identity’ have a similar overall plot. In both of them a man loses his memory and goes on a quest to discover his past. He first discovers that he is one person, and then realizes that he is not. A new clue takes him to a different place and he realizes that he might be another person. This continues on. The difference is that in Modiano’s novel the search is slow, realistic and filled with beautiful sentences and philosophical thoughts. In Ludlum’s novel, the search is filled with gunfights, bad villains, car chases, and a beautiful woman.

        You didn’t answer my question on Nancy Huston 🙂

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        • December 10, 2014 at 10:35 pm

          Thanks for the explanation. It makes sense, it sounds like the difference between a French film and a Hollywood film. 🙂

          Sorry I forgot about Nancy Huston. I don’t know if she deserves the Nobel Prize but she sure has a unique voice and unusual themes. Plus she writes in language that is not her native language.

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  6. December 7, 2014 at 10:23 am

    I know very little about Modiano to be honest, so it’s interesting to hear your reactions to this book. The only other review I recall is Stu’s post on The Search Warrant, but that’s WWII again.

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    • December 7, 2014 at 3:29 pm

      I’m really fed up with WWII novels. Sure the moral dilemma it created are terrific plot material but there are too many novels around that theme.

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  7. December 7, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    I think you are being a little bit harsh on Mondiano I have read a couple of his books ( place d’etoile and cafe de la jeunesse) I thought both were v haunting and evocative but he does mainly write about the Occupation and its moral dilemmas

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    • December 7, 2014 at 3:31 pm

      Maybe I am but this novel is good and not outstanding. I would have liked to be bowled over.
      I tend to stay away from books set in WWII now.

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      • December 7, 2014 at 4:01 pm

        Well he is prob not for you as most of his books are set then ( I think the Nobel jury mentioned that when awarding him the prize). It’s not historical fiction though …I partic enjoyed Cafe de la Jeunesse Perdue.

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  8. December 7, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    I’ve read at least ten of his books and never expected him to win the Nobel because I thought he was too good for the Nobel prize. I think it’s one of those where I find they are finally giving the prize to a writer who really deserves it.

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    • December 7, 2014 at 6:24 pm

      Why is he so good?

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      • December 7, 2014 at 7:29 pm

        I alwa<s thought he shows the way memory works in a really masterful way. Personal history blended with the "bigger" history. And I thought so a long time before he won the Nobel Prize. I'm not that keen on his WWII novels. But Villa Triste, for example, is such a beautiful book.

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        • December 8, 2014 at 10:01 pm

          Villa Triste was not in the bookstore. There were mostly his WWII novels. I’ll have a look at it. Have you seen the film version by Patrick Leconte?

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  9. December 8, 2014 at 9:53 am

    Apparently he did leave someone open mouthed with admiration.
    He’s new to me but maybe I should give him a try.

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    • December 8, 2014 at 10:04 pm

      Critics find him very good. They’re more knowledgeable than me so don’t discard him on my account. I don’t see the genius in Houellebecq either, so maybe my genius-radar is off. 🙂

      I expected better, that’s all.

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  10. December 10, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    As best I know he’s primarily an author of WWII and the occupation, so you did well to find one that wasn’t about that. Since like you I’m not a fan of WWII novels I’m potentially more interested in this one than the ones he’s more famous for, but it sounds missable.

    Which Patrice Leconte film were you referring to? I’m a huge Leconte fan but I’ve missed a fair few of his.

    The Nobel I don’t rate as a prize at all. I don’t think it counts against him that he won, but nor does it count for him.

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    • December 10, 2014 at 10:38 pm

      Villa Triste has been made into a film by Leconte, Le Parfum d’Yvonne in 1994. I haven’t seen it.
      Perhaps I should give him another try with Villa Triste.

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  11. December 11, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    Modiano was among the first contemporary writers I read in French, and I wolfed down four of five of his novels when I discovered him. I was surprised, and not unpleasantly, to learn that he’d won the Nobel Prize. It’s been probably a dozen years since I’ve read anything by Modiano. I should really revisit him to refresh my memory as to why I felt so drawn to his writing, but I do recall that the books I read (including Rue des Boutiques Obscures, Villa Triste and Quartier Perdu) were remarkably evocative, melancholy but with a keen intelligence and humor, and quite something more than the polar style with which they played on the surface. I even made a music compilation based on Rue des Boutiques Obscures, a soundtrack for a film I imagined might one day be made of the book.

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    • December 12, 2014 at 11:57 am

      We’eve read the same books and I loved them for the same reasosn. I also remember wolfing down at least four or five quickly.

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      • December 14, 2014 at 10:43 am

        Caroline,

        Have you read any Eric Reinhardt? He’s praised by critics, he seems to have a beautiful style but I’ve never tried his books yet.

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    • December 14, 2014 at 10:38 am

      Thanks for your message. I obviously picked the wrong Modiano and Villa Triste seems worth another try. The elements you mention (melancholy, polar style) are present in Dimanches d’août but I wasn’t blown away.

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  12. December 14, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    I suspect I’ll see if Villa Triste gets translated, and if so try that and if not possibly pass on him.

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    • December 14, 2014 at 5:22 pm

      Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person) is supposed to be good too. It won the Prix Goncourt.

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    • December 14, 2014 at 5:46 pm

      PS Max, are you still with us for The Good Soldier? I started this morning, it’s…hmm, I’m trying to find the right superlative…

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      • December 14, 2014 at 7:21 pm

        Yes, I’ll start it after I finish The Yips, which should be soon.

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