So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood
by Patrick Modiano
Translated by Euan Cameron
Houghton Mifflin, 2015
Unbeknownst to most Americans (including, I hasten to admit, myself), for the past half century Patrick Modiano has built a literary legacy in his native France. It was not until he received the Nobel Prize in Literature that the United States took real notice, and the consequent translations of his novels appearing now and well into next year will certainly solidify the notice into a reputation. First was last year’s Suspended Sentences, a trilogy of novellas set during the Nazi occupation, a period Modiano returns to again and again. (Apparently his father’s dubious activities during the war spur this fixation on.) And now we have another short work, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, which has Modiano dealing with another major theme of his work: memory and identity.
Modiano’s investigation into memory has earned him comparisons with Marcel Proust, but where In Search of Lost Time spends seven volumes comprehensively navigating the narrator’s past, Modiano’s fiction has a more immediate predicament that prompts the scrutiny, a question to be answered. Proust represents contemplative self-reflection, whereas Modiano works with mysteries as metaphors. So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, for instance, opens with a quintessentially postmodern situation: Jean Daragane, an aging and isolated novelist, receives a phone call late at night from a man who says he found the writer’s address book. It puts one in mind of Paul Auster’s City of Glass or Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which both open with mysterious phone calls. Modiano, though, plays the plot more realistically than either Auster or Murakami, but that doesn’t mean the conundrums are any less complex or postmodern.
The identity crisis for Daragane begins when he meets the man who retrieved his address book, and is asked about a particular name, Guy Torstel, which appears not only in Daragane’s address book but also in his first novel, published, like Modiano’s, decades earlier. Daragane has no recollection of this Guy Torstel, nor of his debut, but as Gilles, the inquiring stranger, continues to probe, memories begin to return to Daragane, slowly, murkily, until he’s suddenly confronted by his complicated past and the woman who, in part, made it that way. Annie Astrand hosted Daragane in his youth, exposing the young boy to a rowdy, well-frequented household. These memories—and this woman—shake Daragane to his core, but what do these revelations have to do with Gilles’s curiosity? What is Annie Astrand to him? Or Guy Torstel, for that matter? Gilles is certainly shady—a woman who’s always by his side confirms this to Daragane—but until these connections are elucidated, the enigmas remain.
The bulk of So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood deals with these questions, as Daragane enters into an admittedly Proust-like series of reveries in which the past and the present blur (even, at times, for the reader). With direct and effortless prose (translated from the French by Euan Cameron), Modiano moves Daragane deep into the labyrinthine recesses of his own memory. Some of the ways in which long-forgotten incidents and people return to Daragane seem a little too convenient, as if his mind were complicit in the heightening drama. And because these memories relate strongly to the plot, Daragane’s mental gymnastics come across as more writer-controlled than character-driven. But Modiano even uses this to his considerable advantage, as in the moment when the process of remembrance is implicitly compared to narrative:
Yet how had he come to be on close terms with Gilles Ottolini and this Chantal Gippay? In the past, new encounters were often blunt and frank—two people who collide with one another in the street, like the bumper cars of his childhood. Here, everything had happened gently, a lost address book, voices on the telephone, a meeting in a café...Yes, it all had the lightness of a dream. And the pages of the “dossier” had also given him a strange sensation: because of certain names, and especially that of Annie Astrand, and all those words piled on top of each other without double-spacing, he suddenly found himself confronted with certain details of his life, but reflected in a distorting mirror, with those disjointed details that pursue you on nights when you have a temperature.
As we age, our brains accept and absorb events differently, and thus our perception of the importance of these events changes too. Storytelling often suggests clean causality, but that, for Daragane, is a youthful interpretation. For him, older and more isolated, the sheer vastness of his memory makes these connections nearly impossible to make.
As the answers slowly begin to emerge, Daragane recalls the walks he used to take as a kid and wonders how far away he’d strayed. Then he remembers a piece of paper Annie would give him as he set out for these jaunts, on which were written her address and the title phrase, “So you don’t get lost in the neighborhood.” Our identities, this suggests, begin in youth, with certain events or people whose influences function a bit like planted seeds that won’t blossom for many years, at which point our connection to those initial events has been severed by time and activity. Yet if these seeds are not nurtured, even if only to carefully pluck them from the soil, a quiet yet powerful crisis can emerge. Annie gave Daragane that address and that reassurance when he was young, yet here Daragane still is, wrestling with his past and its significance to his identity, lost in his own neighborhood. Gilles’s irksome interruption of Daragane’s life actually leads to some necessary mourning (because what is aging if not the constant mourning of past selves?), but Daragane’s accomplishment remains dubious: what, after all, does an aging novelist do with self-actualization? Or maybe a better way to put it would be: of what use is self-actualization to such a person? But Modiano isn’t interested in some happy ending for Daragane; instead, it is the process that compels Modiano’s fiction, and how, as we struggle to resolve our myriad issues from the past, and as we continue to apply these lessons to our futures, our personal development is not in preparation for life but is, in fact, life itself.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. For more, visit jonathanrussellclark.com or follow him @jrc2666.