When French novelist Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize last year, the overwhelming reaction from the American and British media was one of polite indifference. After all, most of his novels were, at that point, not translated into English. Now, of course, this has been swiftly remedied. One of the unexpected side-effects is that whispers about Modiano’s alleged anti-Semitic stance became a little more than whispers. Having read three of his books now, I find this to be a laughable claim.
Modiano’s father, an Italian Jew, had apparently been involved in some shady dealing during the years of the Occupation; black marketing, the author reckons (Modiano’s father remained ambiguous about this until his death). Yes, there are men and women who might plausibly feel ashamed of their identities, but nobody who has read Modiano’s books can put him in this category. In his novel Les Boulevards de ceinture (1972), translated into English as Ring Roads, Modiano tries to clear a bit of the fog around his father’s life. Ring Roads feels like something Dashiel Hammett and Patricia Highsmith would have cooked up over a night of scotch and cigars.
The protagonist is a young man who meets his father for the first time when he is in boarding school. They go on to live together in Paris for a while before the father vanishes as mysteriously as he appeared. Years after his disappearance, the son (who calls himself Serge Alexandre, referencing his father’s time in Alexandria) tracks his father to the village of Seine-et-Marne, where he spends his time in the company of some very dubious individuals at an inn called the Clos-Foucré.
Dropcap OnThe inn is operated by a woman known as Maud Gallas, an ex-prostitute who doesn’t seem to mind her male patrons pawing her in a drunken stupor. Serge’s father, Baron Deyckecaire, is an émigré from Egypt who is now biding his time, waiting for the war to get over, trying to make a quick buck on the black market and as a seller of fake curios.
Modiano’s writing often reads like a long and elaborate caption for a photo-essay. Indeed, the novel’s opening passage is a lovely deconstruction of a faded old photograph. This approach has its merits, especially when you consider the “memory fever” mood that its protagonist is in for the better part of the book.
Deyckecaire is always hanging out with, and kissing up to, Murraille, an anti-Semitic newspaper editor who has a lifetime of “blackmail journalism” behind him. “Never threaten; only coerce” is the motto that Murraille follows, and it’s hinted at more than once that Deyckecaire has some role to play in this process as well. Murraille’s best friend is the ex-legionnaire Marcheret, who has a history with Gallas and is a little too fond of his drink. Marcheret is engaged to Murraille’s daughter Annie, possessor of “the palest and the most bewitching ass in Paris”. Sylviane, another ex-prostitute, now lives with Murraille and the whole bunch regularly indulges in orgies that scandalise the rest of Seine-et-Marne.
Modiano’s writing often reads like a long and elaborate caption for a photo-essay. Indeed, the novel’s opening passage is a lovely deconstruction of a faded old photograph. This approach has its merits, especially when you consider the “memory fever” mood that its protagonist is in for the better part of the book. Here, for instance, is young Serge remembering how his graduating high school affected his father.
“He brought me breakfast in bed with a ceremonious manner which jarred with our surroundings: the wallpaper in my room was peeling in places, a bare bulb hung from the ceiling, and when he pulled the curtains, the curtain rail would fall down. One day, he accidentally referred to me by my Christian name and was mortally embarrassed. What had I done to earn such respect? I discovered it was the fact that I was a ‘bachelier‘, when he personally wrote to the school in Bordeaux to ask them to send the certificate proving I had got my baccalaureate. When it arrived, he had it framed, and hung it between the two ‘windows’ in the ‘living-room’. I had noticed that he kept a copy in his wallet.”
Ring Roads doesn’t have a lot happening plot-wise, but where it succeeds is its depiction of xenophobia and the kind of existential angst that war brings about. It’s not the kind of catharsis narrative that a lot of other war books sometimes boil down to. It is, instead, a slow-burner that is more interested in capturing the rhythms of a particular time and place. If you’re looking for an introduction to Modiano’s work, this is as good as any.