So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood is my first experience of Modiano; it was originally published in 2014 as Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier. It is Modiano’s most recent book so it may not be the best place to begin with an author’s work but there was something about the beginning of the book that appealed to me; it begins with an ageing author, Jean Daragane, receiving a phonecall from a stranger who claims to have found Daragane’s address book. Straight away this reminds me of the first story in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, called City of Glass, a favourite story of mine by a favourite author. Both stories are quite similar at first but Modiano has a different approach than Auster and a different type of story unfolds.
The phonecall is from Gilles Ottolini, who claims to work at an advertising agency. He not only wants to return the address book but he wants to meet Daragane and quiz him about one of the names in the book, Guy Torstel. Daragane, who is a bit of a recluse, is apprehensive from the start; his first impression of Ottolini is that he has ‘a dreary and threatening voice’ and ‘the tone of a blackmailer’. When he meets Ottolini, and his girlfriend Chantal Grippay, nothing dispels this feeling that he is going to be blackmailed. Gilles has a ‘dossier’ on Jean that he claims to have obtained from the police. He also claims to be writing a piece on the murder of Colette Laurent in 1952 and believes that information about Torstel may help with his enquiries. At this point the story starts to change into a different story than was originally intimated. Gilles no longer appears directly in the story as Jean is now approached by Chantal, who photocopies Gilles’s dossier and warns Jean that she is scared of Gilles and that Jean should be scared too. The noirish aspect now dissolves away partly as the story concentrates on Jean trying to remember Guy Torstel and other events from his past. The novel now flips between three time periods: a period when Jean was about seven years old, a period when Jean had published his first novel, Le Noir de l’été, and the present-day (2012).
n.b. although there isn’t much of a plot to give away, if you’re planning on reading this then you may wish to skip the next few paragraphs and rejoin with last paragraph.
Both Gilles and Chantal appear as stereotypical low-level hoodlums out on the hustle. We can’t really believe what they tell Jean and neither does Jean, but he doesn’t know quite what they’re after other than information about a person he can’t remember. But the novel now concentrates on Jean’s attempts to remember events from his past. He now remembers meeting Guy Torstel and he eventually recognises a passport photograph of a seven year-old boy in the ‘dossier’ as himself which sparks more memories of when the photograph was taken and how he included this rather insignificant event into his first novel. Slowly he pieces bits of his past together and he remembers living with a woman, Annie Astrand, when he was seven and that the passport photographs were needed as they were going to go to Rome. He had included a section in his novel about this in order to reach out to Annie whom he had lost contact with.
He had written this book only in the hope that she might get in touch with him. Writing a book, for him, was also a way of beaming a searchlight or sending out coded signals to certain people with whom he had lost touch. It was enough to scatter their names at random through the pages and wait until they finally produced news of themselves.
Annie did get in touch but, in keeping with the rest of the novel, only little bits of information are revealed. We discover that Annie was friends with Colette and that Annie spent time in prison but this is all vague information dredged up from unreliable memories and uncooperative people.
This was an interesting read although it was also quite frustrating at times. I don’t mind the fact that it begins as a bit of a noir detective novel and changes tack halfway through; in fact I quite liked this aspect of the novella where we think it’s going to be about Gilles’s and Chantals’s blackmailing of Jean, or worse. There were a few coincidences, such as Gilles living in the same building as Jean had and possibly even in the same room; there were identity issues, such as Jean not recognising photographs of himself, Chantal and Annie both changed their names—these are topics that are common in Auster’s novels and I find that they can be annoying if overdone but can be intriguing as they add an eerie quality to the text. But it was the vagueness of Jean’s memory that was a little annoying, I mean, it’s understandable that we forget things but when he won’t even look in his own novel to verify what he wrote or look into a suitcase that contains personal documents or ask people direct questions then I begin to find the character quite frustrating and the author is being obstinately obfuscating. The end of the novel cuts off sharply with very little resolved and will be a source of frustration for a lot of readers but as long as you’re not expecting everything to be wrapped up neatly at the end then you may be able to cope with it. So I do feel that Modiano was just a little too vague about details; he slowly drips little bits of information and clues, as Jean rediscovers them, but in the end just too much is left hanging, too much is left ambiguous. Surely Jean would know and be able to share a few details which would help us such as why he was with Annie rather than his parents, where he lived afterwards, when his parents died etc.
My initial reading of this novella was quite fractured as I read it over a couple of days commuting to and from work. I skimmed through the whole book before writing this post which I found useful as I started to see more in it than I did in my first read, unfortunately these were more questions than answers, but it made me appreciate it more. I would suggest that it is best read in one or two sittings. I’m looking forward to reading some more by Modiano though I’m not sure which one will be my next read.