Patrick Modiano, the French Nobel Prize winning author, wrote his first book, La Place de l’etoile about a Jewish collaborator in World War Two, a story which so incensed his Italian Jewish father he tried to buy up every copy of it. Relations between the two men were never easy, and perhaps set the tone for the distant relations that exist between parents and characters in his novels.
In Paris Nocturne, the nameless young male protagonist has lost touch with his father and in Little Jewel, Thérèse, the young female character is consumed by the search for her mother, even though she has been told her mother died years ago. Both of these books give a glimpse into a brief period in the lives of these young characters, alone and adrift in a mist of lost memories, walking through Paris searching for meaning and identity.
The young man’s search is sparked by an accident in which he is hit by a car driven by a woman named Jacqueline Beausergent. But before this we learn a little of his life. He lives in cheap hotels and ekes out a living buying and selling cheap second-hand books. He has no memory of his mother and only sporadic interaction with his father. When he was seventeen, he recalls, his father called the police to take him away because he was a thug.
He used to meet his father from time to time in cheap cafes, where his father always had an attaché case and a list of names, but the nature of his business was never clear. There is no warmth between them and one day his father goes off without a backward look and they never meet again.
When he is knocked down by Jacqueline Beausergent, she takes him by the hand and leads him to a hotel, later he is transferred to a hospital. But all the time a thick-set man, who seems to be either her employee or friend, watches over him. He doesn’t know how long he is in hospital, but while there, he is given ether by two nuns. Is this link with the past the factor that drives him in his later search for Jacqueline?
Two nuns leaned over me, their faces taut in their white wimples. They put the same black muzzle over my nose as the one at the Hotel-Dieu. And when falling asleep I smelled the monochrome odour of ether…
…the smell of ether always had a curious effect on me. It seemed the very essence of childhood, but as it was bound up with sleep and the numbing of pain, the images that it unveiled clouded over again simultaneously…Ether made me both remember and forget.
When he wakes the thick-set man gets him to sign papers he doesn’t bother to read and leaves him with a roll of banknotes. What he is also left with is a burning desire to find Jacqueline again.
This all has a dream-like quality that is characteristic of both of these books. Nothing seems quite real and the forgetting and remembering, the effort to find clues in the past is confused with dreams and delusions
Thérèse, or Little Jewel, as she was once called, has fewer resources than the young man. She is younger, uneducated, while he has his Bac. Her mother was inconsistent in her care, ultimately disappearing, she says, to Morocco. She sends Therese on a train with a label round her neck to be cared for by some women friends. Little Jewel was a name she had when she made a film with her mother. But was the film ever released? And was it paid for by her mother’s lover?
One day on the Metro Thérèse sees a woman in a yellow jacket. The woman looks like her mother, she convinces herself she is her mother, and she spends day after day searching for this woman. It is never clear who she really is.
Thérèse encounters others in her search, even makes friendships of a kind. At night she feels safe sitting with Moreau-Badmaev in the green light of his radio while he takes down radio broadcasts in strange languages. His favourite language seems to be the Persian of the Plains.
For a short time she takes a job as a nanny with the Valadiers. Their child too is neglected. Therese only ever knows her as ‘the little girl,’ they send the child out into the streets at night as a way of learning to look after herself. They go out at night, leaving her alone in the empty house:
‘There’s a slice of ham for you in the fridge,’ she said to the little girl. ‘I think we’ll be home late tonight.’
The next time Thérèse goes to mind the child the Valadier family have disappeared.
Eventually when Thérèse is at the end of her resources she is cared for by a lady pharmacist, who seems to have her well-being at heart. As the book ends she is planning to take Thérèse away for a holiday. But there is something disturbing about this rather one-sided friendship.
The young man also has some sort of closure. He finds Jacqueline, and we leave him going up in a darkened lift with her, but to what purpose?
Perhaps Modiano’s book are an acquired taste, but he captures a certain mood beautifully, and takes the reader into a shadowy Paris both familiar and unfamiliar. Those who love Zola, Colette, and Simenon will enjoy these disquieting stories.