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A Pair of Threesomes from Patrick Modiano

Modiano Threesomes

After a gap of nine months or so, I returned to Patrick Modiano’s novels again. By sheer chance, I selected two books written six years apart that each involve a young man who is taken in and sheltered briefly by a couple: Honeymoon and Out of the Dark. In Honeymoon, first published in 1990, Jean B. is a Parisian documentary filmmaker who decides to disappear from the lives of his wife and his daughter and his wife’s lover. He fakes a trip to Brazil, hides out in Milan for a while, and then returns to Paris determined to live the remainder of his life in cheap hotels. In typical Modiano fashion, the narrator’s decision turns on an event that happened long ago. Eighteen years earlier, while in Milan, Jean had accidentally learned of the recent suicide of a Frenchwoman. Honeymoon is the story of the connection between Jean and the woman who committed suicide, whose name was Ingrid.

As a much younger man, Jean was hitchhiking in the south of France, heading to St. Tropez, when a couple pick him up in their car  – Ingrid and Rigaud, who is apparently her husband. It is early 1942 and France is under German occupation. The couple turn out to be kind and generous to Jean, but they are clearly hiding something. They invite him to stay with them at the beach-side house they seem to have borrowed, but they mysteriously turn off the lights and hide whenever neighbors come near. Gradually, we learn more about the two, especially Irene, who is Austrian and Jewish. She had been living in Paris with her father before moving in with Rigaud. As the deportation of Jews intensifies, Rigaud offers to take her south, where it is somewhat safer. They drive to the Côte d’Azur, pretending to be on honeymoon, when they encounter Jean.

Jean stays with Ingrid and Rigaud for what seems to be a period of months before he finally continues on his own way. But he can never shake Irene from his mind. In the post-war years and even during his own marriage, he tries to discover everything he can about the paths that Irene and Rigaud took after the war ended. Something about Irene and her story has touched him deeply, even though it appears that Jean and Irene had never been lovers themselves. “All those waves of tenderness that she communicated to me through the simple contact of her arm and the pale blue look she gave me from time to time. I didn’t know that such things could happen in life.”

At the end of the book, through a series of events too complicated to outline quickly, Jean manages to take up residence in an old Paris apartment where Irene and Riguad once lived briefly, content to recall his brief encounter with Irene and to live his life in the shadow of Irene’s past. He acquires a bicycle and starts to visit the places that were once part of her daily life. “One day this sense of emptiness and remorse submerges you. Then, like a tide, it ebbs and disappears. But in the end it returns in force…”

In so many of Modiano’s novels, it is the brief glimpse, the chance encounter, or an old newspaper clipping that grasps the heart and soul of his main characters in a manner that is out of proportion to the rest of their lives, as if these ephemeral events have an uncanny way of tapping into the very core of whatever makes them human and vulnerable. In Honeymoon, the real honeymoon seems to occur when Jean finally gives in and decides to live alone, with only his memories of Irene.

In Out of the Dark the nameless narrator tells us about a series of events that occurred thirty years earlier, when he met an oddly unhappy couple Gérard and Jacqueline, who appear to live on Gérard’s occasional winnings in French casinos. Jacqueline and the narrator begin an affair and she convinces him to run away from Gérard with her. They head to London where they hope to gather up enough money to disappear together in Majorca. In London, they fall in with another quarrelsome, unpleasant couple. After a couple of months, the affair between the narrator and Jacqueline is over and the narrator doesn’t see Jacqueline again – until one day thirty years later in Paris he spots her by accident. She is married and has inexplicably changed her name to Thérèse. They have a couple of brief conversations and then she disappears again.

Honeymoon is a deeply affecting and mysterious book.  Out of the Dark, on the other hand, is the weakest of Modiano’s books that I have read to date. The characters are aimless and mostly unpleasant, the narrator’s motivations are insignificant, and nothing about the narrator’s youth convincingly resonates in the person he becomes thirty years later. Modiano’s prose seems listless and uninspired.

It’s always tempting to summarize the plots of Modiano’s novels, because he buries the emotional impact of his books in the discovery of small details, in the close juxtaposition of different time frames, and in the carefully placed rhythms of loss and memory. But in reality, many key aspects of Modiano’s plots are often so artificial and so tenuous that an accurate plot summary would make his books seem implausible. In Honeymoon, for example, the likelihood of Jean locating and renting the same apartment in which Ingrid and Rigaud lived many years earlier – not to mention the fact that some of their possessions are still in the closet – is far-fetched, to say the least. And in Out of the Dark, after the narrator spots (and somehow immediately recognizes) Jacqueline after a separation of thirty years, he follows her to an apartment building, gains access to a party happening there (on the weak theory that she is likely going to that party), and manages to confront her. For whatever reason, I realize I have come to accept these improbabilities which seem to occur in practically every novel by Modiano. It has something to do with the fact that Modiano’s predictably brief books are little masterpieces of suggestion. Decades pass in a sentence, scenes are sketched with the merest of details. What matters are are the vague, mostly inarticulate emotions that shape people’s lives.

Patrick Modiano. Honeymoon. Boston: David Godine, 1995. Translated from Voyage de Noces (1990) by Barbara Wright.

Patrick Modian. Out of the Dark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. Translated from Du plus loin de l’oubli (1995) by Jordan Stump.

 

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I appreciate your review of Jack Cox’s Dodge Rose, which brought me to this entry. I also appreciate this reading of Patrick Modiano’s work, though I disagree about his novel (or novella?) Out of the Dark.

    While it is the thinnest in terms of plot of any of his novels that I’ve read, there is a powerful atmospheric quality that I find haunting. The narration flashes like a phantasm, and then is gone. The prose, light, mysterious, highly lyrical and concise, drew something essential out of the trio of the narrator’s three encounters with Jacqueline/Thérèse, while also showing the folly and eventual dimming of the passions of one’s youth, and the inexorable effects of time’s passage.

    Out of the Dark reads to me like a distillation, an attar perhaps, of Modiano’s work and concerns, and though lacking the gravity of its subject matter like Dora Bruder, less experimental in style than Place de l’Étoile, and less plotted and substantial in its themes than Missing Person (Rue des boutiques obscures), I found it lingering in my head for weeks after I set it down.

    February 18, 2016

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