When Stu over at Winstonsdad reviewed Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant and casually mentioned he was in with a chance of winning the Nobel Prize I thought I would investigate further. This proved fairly straight-forward: although little of his work had been translated into English, and most of that was out of print, I picked up a copy of Honeymoon (translated by Barbara Wright in 1992) for under a fiver. Within a few days he was indeed announced as the winner much to everyone’s (well, not Stu’s obviously) surprise and my delight – copies of his out-of-print work were quickly out of my price range.
Honeymoon seems to be typical of Modiano’s work – the general consensus seems to be that he tackles the same themes again and again – in that it is short (Simenon is an influence) and deals with the German Occupation of France. The novel begins with a suicide in a hotel in Milan. The central character, Jean, overhears it discussed at the bar:
“What had caused her to do it I might never know.”
Only later does he discover that he knows the woman in question – Ingrid Rigaud – and, years later, abandons his own life in order to attempt to answer the question he asked himself that day. Having said farewell to his wife and friends at the airport he leaves, not for Rio to shoot a documentary as they think, but for Milan, returning to Paris to in order to “pick up her traces.” Modiano now has two characters ending their lives (though in different ways) for obscure and shadowy reasons. One clue is Jean’s sense that the past is inseparable from the present:
“For a long time – and this particular time with greater force than usual – summer has been a season that gives me a sense of emptiness and absence, and takes me back to the past…The past and the present merge in my mind through a phenomenon of superimposition.”
The summer in Milan, when he heard of Ingrid’s suicide, merges into an earlier summer when he first meets Ingrid and her husband in Saint-Raphael, hitching a lift with them to Saint-Tropez. Modiano shifts feely between the different years throughout the novel as if to emphasise meaninglessness of chronology. A number of clues to Ingrid’s past are in evidence – only to be understood later. Though her passport states she is from Vienna, when Jean mentions that he has been there recently, she does not react. Later, as they switch the lights off to avoid being invited to a neighbour’s party, Jean asks what they will do if the neighbour taps them on the shoulder (Ingrid has already said they will pretend to be sleeping if they are seen):
“Well, in that case we’ll pretend to be dead.”
Ingrid and Riguad’s relationship with each other, and that part of France, began with The Occupation when they fled Paris together to a place where “people behaved as if the war didn’t exist.” (This is the honeymoon of the title). Ingrid’s Viennese origins suggest she is Jewish, or certainly that she came to France with her father to escape the Nazis. When the Germans begin to investigate people even there, they hide in a villa that belongs to friend of Rigaud’s mother:
“They built fortifications along the coast and came prowling around the villa. Ingrid and Rigaud had to put out the lights and pretend to be dead.”
Once again, Modiano suggests the past is a template for the present.
Jean’s relationship to these memories are unclear. Though he is investigating Ingrid’s past, there is little evidence he has unearthed such detail. (He meets her only twice). It is as if what he is trying to discover sits alongside his attempts to discover it in the narrative. At the same time he is moving into Rigaud’s old apartment, he is also reliving his own past, “in all these places where we had lived in the old days and which I have now come back to.” After spending his life making documentaries about explorers, Jean now seems to be on his own internal exploration.
Though brief, this novel seemed to me rich in atmosphere and ideas. It reminded me a little of Muriel Spark, particularly The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with its masterful use of a non-chronological narrative where words and events echo across the pages. If this is typical of Modiano’s work, then I look forward to reading more.