Roads to a night
French novelist <g data-gr-id="49">Jean Patrick</g> Modiano, recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, has been previously awarded the 2012 Austrian State Prize for European Literature, the 2010 Prix <g data-gr-id="48">mondial</g> Cino Del Duca from the Institut de France for lifetime achievement, the 1978 Prix Goncourt for Rue des boutiques obscures, and the 1972 Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française for Les Boulevards de <g data-gr-id="50">ceinture</g>. His works have been translated in over 30 languages, acclaimed in and around France, but too few of his novels had been translated into English before he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
The 2014 Nobel Prize for literature bagged by Patrick Modiano give readers of fiction in English two of his eight works translated in English. Both The Night Watch and Ring Roads may be concluded to be close to the life of the writer; just like, as Modiano once said: “I couldn’t write an autobiography, that’s why I called it a ‘pedigree’: It’s a book less on what I did than on what others, mainly my parents, did to me.”
Modiano’s father, Albert Modiano, after meeting an actress in occupied Paris who later became his wife and Patrick Modiano’s mother, was once picked up and narrowly missed being deported, after a timely intervention from a friend in 1943. During the war years Albert did business on the black market, hanging around with the <g data-gr-id="52">Carlingue</g>, the French Gestapo auxiliaries. This time was never quite clearly spoken about before Albert’s death in 1977. This, however, went on to be along the theme of The Night Watch.
From the occupation trilogy, Ring Roads, is the thrilling and dramatic story of a young Jewish man who sets out incognito in search of his father whom he hasn’t seen in about a decade. In the <g data-gr-id="68">process</g> he becomes an impostor who keeps up the appearances he concocts. Ring Roads (1974), is a novella, a translation of Les boulevards de <g data-gr-id="56">ceinture</g> (1972), which won that year’s Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, perhaps giving it the brief spell of fame that warranted the English translation. Of the 39 works produced by Patrick Modiano, only eight are available in English translation.
This makes it quite expected that most non-French readers come across this celebrated French writer for the very first time, only after he has been
associated with the Nobel Prize. As the Yale UP website quotes, “Shadowed by the dark period of the Nazi Occupation, these novellas reveal Modiano’s fascination with the lost, obscure, or mysterious: a young person’s confusion over adult behaviour; the repercussions of a chance encounter; the search for a missing father; the aftershock of a fatal affair.”
Modiano seizes the Nobel Prize “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”. This is most evident in the descriptive narrative, so vivid, the Paris of 70’s comes alive in all its colours and shadows.
The themes of the narratives are similar, and match with the life of the writer in some way or the other. Ring Roads has the aspect of being a Jew in difficult times. The Night Watch is recreating that phase his father once lived around the French Gestapo.
Both these novelettes have arguably touched off from close personal experiences but course through exquisite fictional finesse, giving the reader a nearly first-hand look into a France of many years ago.
This documentation through a work of fiction of an era, of a city of myriad tales and labyrinths, the historicity of the time of occupation, are a penetrating insight into a war-time Paris, from the “art of memory”. There is the black market, the prostitutes pivotal to schemes, the protagonists in both the tales court unseen danger and wriggle their ways through in manners that keep the reader on tenterhooks.
In this astonishing, cruel, and tender book, The Night Watch, Modiano attempts to exorcise the past by leading his characters out on a
phantasmagorical patrol during one fatal night of the occupation.
The Night Watch (originally published as Night Rounds) and Ring Roads (1969 and 1972, respectively), belong to Modiano’s Occupation
Trilogy, which began with La Place de l’Étoile (1968). There looms a sense of purpose behind the similar themes of the books, Modiano’s art of memory reconstructs the disappeared, giving voice to the anonymous and the unknown. The 2014 Nobel Prize for literature should hopefully take Modiano beyond the French lines.