Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year and some of his novels are being translated into English for the first time. Among them is Paris Nocturne, which opens with the narrator being knocked down as he crosses Place des Pyramides one night in winter. Rather than being angry or shaken, he holds fast to the experience as an opportunity to reconnect with his own drifting life.
He wanders the streets of Paris looking for the enigmatic driver, Jacqueline Beausergent, and the mysterious man who made him sign an account of the accident and handed him an envelope full of money at the hospital when he was discharged. In searching for Jacqueline, buried memories reassert themselves and his search becomes intertwined with an awakening desire to understand his own life. The truth of what happened the night seems as elusive as the strands of his past. Modiano’s treatment of the way memories reappear and how we connect them to create a narrative for our own lives is punctuated by moments of real clarity for the narrator. This is deft writing, thought-provoking and subtle.
Modiano also appears as a bit part in a much more straightforward novel which was the success of the spring. Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook is a delight, charting another search but this time by a Parisian bookseller for the owner of a handbag he finds on the street. Different objects in her handbag lead him to become intrigued by their owner and attempt the near impossible task of trying to find one woman in Paris. Witty and charming, I finished this at the kitchen table with a glass of wine and enjoyed every minute of his journey.
It is not Modiano but Sartre and Kessel who have minor roles in The Incorrigible Optimists Club by Jean-Michel Guernassia, which won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens in France. This is a big-hearted coming-of-age tale set in 1960s Paris to the backdrop of the Algerian war. Twelve-year old Michel escapes his own tumultuous family life by going to a bistro in Montparnasse to play table football with other boys. One day he sneaks into the backroom and finds it full of chess players, exiles from party purges in Russia and the Soviet bloc. He is quickly drawn into their world, their stories and their antagonisms both intellectual and personal. It is to these survivors whom he turns when his family runs into difficulty and for advice when first love strikes. A richly-peopled, ambitious novel, Guernassia conjures Paris and that period with warmth and humanity through the eyes of Michel and ends with a real twist in the tale.