‘So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood’ by Patrick Modiano

modiano-isbn9780857054951So 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.

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19 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Modiano, Patrick

19 responses to “‘So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood’ by Patrick Modiano

  1. I’ve also enjoyed the Modiano books I’ve read (I think 2 at this point.) I have this one sitting on my shelf and your review has intrigued me.

    Have a happy holiday, Jonathan!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I’ll be interested in what you think of it. Over the last couple of years I’ve read a lot of posts about his works and most of them appeal to me even if, like this one, there is an element of frustration about it.

      Merry Christmas!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interested to read your reactions to Modiano, Jonathan. I’ve read one of his titles so far, and abandoned one, and the jury is still out for me. What you say about too much being left hanging and being ambiguous strikes a bell – I don’t want everything cut and dried and tidy in a book but there is such a thing as being *too* vague and I do think Modiana lapses into that too often!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      On the whole I liked the book and would recommend it as long as loose ends aren’t a problem. The thing is that I really liked the way that the story changed midway and that the characters Chantal & Gilles dropped from sight but he should reward the reader a little more, I feel.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve read 5 Modiano and Viilla Triste is by far my favourite as it has the meatiest plot. The others were fragmented to one degree or another.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I may make Villa Triste my next Modiano as I enjoyed your review along with others. I like that he writes a lot of novellas/short-stories as I like that length of story.

      I mentioned that ‘Neighbourhood’ reminded me of Auster but it also reminded me a bit of early Ian McEwan such as The Cement Garden and Comfort of Strangers—two brilliant books.

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  4. I’ve taken your advice and skipped part of this review as I plan to read this one along with everything else I can get my hands on. I really like Modiano, I’ve read three of his now (https://anzlitlovers.com/category/writers-aust-nz-in-capitals/modiano-patrick/) and I fantasise about one day being able to read his work in French. But in the meantime I have The Occupation Trilogy on my TBR and many say that it is his best work…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Yes, The Occupation Trilogy and Suspended Sentence both look as if they’d be interesting reads. It would be nice to be able to read them, as well as other French literature, in the original.

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      • I am reading a novella in French at the moment, but am a bit frustrated because it’s not becoming easier as I go along as I expected. It’s because it’s becoming more reflective I think, and there are a lot more words I don’t know and can’t work out from context. I’ll get back to it properly in the New Year when my peaceful reading life is restored to me!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan

        I’m thinking about having another bash at learning French this year. If I do I think I’ll concentrate more on reading than speaking as that’s what I want it fot anyway.

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      • Where are you going to learn it?

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      • Jonathan

        Well, I haven’t decided if I will yet…but if I do I’ll just read some books I guess. The main problem is that I find it very boring and can’t maintain interest. If I could get to the point where I could read reasonably simple things without too much problem there would be no stopping me.

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      • Have you tried Duolingo? It teaches you the basic things, makes you revise them when you begin to forget them, and it has translation options which provide support because others will edit your ‘errors’ if you make any. You can do it on your phone or on your computer, though the computer is better for translations IMO. (I am working on a translation of a bio about Patrick Modiano).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan

        Thanks Lisa. I’ll have a look at it. Anything that works will, in the end, be worthwhile.

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  5. I’ve read six or seven Modiano novels but not thus one. Villa Triste was my first and is still my favourite. He isn’t strong in plot but I don’t remember any if his other books leaving so much open.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I did enjoy the book, it’s just that deliberately obscure or vague writing with inconclusive endings are a real bugbear of mine. In fact, if I had travelled forward in time and read my review before reading the book I may have put myself off it…but Modiano’s style is great and he does at least drip bits of info along the way. I would recommend it if you liked the others you read.

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