"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 30, 2014

"Rue des Boutiques Obscures" ("Missing Person," 1978) by Patrick Modiano

The Nobel Committee in Sweden doesn't always get it right - and they have their own agenda which is narrower than the total range of literature - but their choices are usually well worth checking out. It were Nobel Prizes that initially attracted my attention to José Saramago and J. M. Coetzee, who are now among my favorite authors. And this year's choice, Patrick Modiano, is a highly interesting author as well. Here I discuss one of his best novels, Prix de Goncourt winner Rue des Boutiques Obscures from 1978.

The novel tells the story of a man suffering from amnesia who searches for his identity, a tale of memory and repression. Guy Roland has lost his memory ten years ago; since then, he has worked in a detective agency. Now, in the mid-1960s, on the retirement of his boss and closure of the office, he finds the time has come to use his sleuthing technique to recover what he can of his tenuous past.

The pieces do not fit easily together. Guy Roland goes around talking to various persons, but is himself  a so-called "empty narrator," a first-person narrator devoid of self or identity, who only listens to others but never talks about himself. He tries to reconstruct his old self using unreliable, fragmentary evidence he receives from those he interrogates, such as old photographs, letters, a magazine, a book. These bring back flashes of memory, but it is not certain whether these recollections are authentic, or just dreams, the result of his imagination. Perhaps he is just creating his past with the memories and the past of others.

First Guy thinks he might have lived in a milieu of Russian émigrés; then he imagines he lived once in Hollywood, serving as the companion of the actor John Gilbert. Next it seems he worked as a diplomat for a Latin-American embassy under the assumed name Pedro McEvoy - a false identity to evade arrest - but in reality he may have been a Greek Jew, a broker who lived in Rome and Paris, called Jimmy Stern, who consorted with the idle rich, including exiled Russian aristocrats. Jimmy Stern was married to a French model called Denise, and was friends with Freddie Howard de Luz of Mauritius (a youth friend whom he met at an exclusive private school) and his wife Gay Orlov, an American dancer of Russian origin. To avoid the Nazi occupation (dangerous if Guy/Jimmy was indeed a Jew) the four friends, together with an English jockey, seem to have moved to the winter sports village of Megève in the French Alps. From there, Guy and Denise tried to flee to Switzerland but they were cheated by their guides and became separated. Guy was abandoned in the snow and Denise disappeared forever. This was in 1943.

Here the memories break off again, and it seemingly follows that Guy lost his memory in 1943. But elsewhere it is stated unambiguously that this happened in 1955 - so what has occurred in the twelve years between those dates? Was this twelve year gap a case of conscious forgetting, just like the French after the war tried to forget their history of cooperation with the Nazis and the Holocaust? This is one of the many questions that is never answered in the book.

The novel has a playful relation to the conventions of detective fiction, by raising the reader's expectations according to the rules of the genre, but always failing to fulfill them. Guy Roland's quest is a never-ending search for identity in a world where "the sand holds the traces of our footsteps but a few moments."

By the way, in English this book has been renamed "Missing Person," which is not only wrong (it is not what the book is about), but which also destroys the rich references of the original title "Street of Dark Shops." This is the name of an actual street in Rome (which also appears in Modiano's previous novel, Livret de famille), and it also points at small clothes shops owned by Jews and therefore hints at the (implied) Jewish identity of the protagonist, Guy Roland, while the "shops" suggest his "shopping around" for an identity, and that he never seems satisfied with what he finds. Guy Roland remains an empty self, trying to fill the void in him with various narratives. The title also embodies "obscurity," connected to the fact that Guy Roland never finds clear proof of his past self, which remains shrouded in darkness. And, finally, a reference to the actual street Rue des Boutiques Obscures in Rome stands at the end of the book suggesting "lack of closure" - the search for identity goes on and will never end. So you see how much is lost when a too commercially-minded publisher changes a title the author has given deep thought to, into a simplistic phrase suggesting a cheap genre novel!

Patrick Modiano was born in Paris in 1945 as the son of an Italian Jewish father and a Belgian mother. His father hid his Jewish identity and evaded arrest, but spent the war doing questionable business on the black market. Modiano always had a difficult relation with his father, who was often absent. Instead, he was emotionally close to his brother Rudy, who died from an illness when only ten years old. After high school, Modiano did not continue to university, but started writing. The famous author Raymond Queneau, a friend of his mother, acted as his mentor and played a decisive role in Modiano's development. His first novel, La Place de l'étoile, was published in 1968 and attracted much attention.

Since then, Modiano has published a new novel every year or every other year. He has also written children's books and film scripts - the most important of these is Lacombe Lucien, a film set under the German occupation, filmed by Louis Malle in 1974. Modiano's books center on themes as memory, oblivion, identity and guilt - there is a decided similarity to the work of German author W.G. Sebald here. Paris also plays an important role in his work, it is evoked by using real addresses and Modiano follows the evolution of its streets. Modiano uses many autobiographical elements in his work. He is also obsessed with what happened during the Nazi occupation. Some of his novels have a documentary character, being built on newspaper articles. Modiano's many novels not only share the same topics, but also hang together because the same persons may return in different novels, and earlier, concise episodes may be extended in later books. Modiano writes in a bare and unemotional - indeed documentary - style.

Some important novels, also translated into English, are: Villa Triste (1975); Voyage des noces (1990, translated as Honeymoon) and especially Dora Bruder (1997, again a title severely mistranslated as "The Search Warrant"). This last novel documents the true history of a fifteen-year old girl (called Dora Bruder) in Paris who ran away from the convent that had sheltered her during the Nazi Occupation and who subsequently became victim of the Holocaust. It shows, again, how little remains of a human life.

November 27, 2014

"The Emigrants" ("Die Ausgewanderten") by W.G. Sebald

The Emigrants, a work of fiction written in 1992 by W.G. Sebald, consists of four short biographical narratives. The original German title, Die Ausgewanderten, has a nuance that is impossible to convey in the same way in English: it means people who have already emigrated, and who are now living away from their original homeland, not "emigrants" still on the move, which would be "Auswanderer." "Displaced persons" or "exiles" would be a better description for the four persons described in these tales, as they have not only emigrated in a spacial sense, but also in a social and above all psychological sense. The Emigrants is the record of the narrator's research into the memories, traumas and feelings of foreignness of four such displaced persons, and it is at the same time a post-modern fictional investigation into the relationship between memory and history. Unavoidably, that history is the impact of WWII and the Holocaust on Germans, especially those of Jewish heritage. It is a sign of Sebalds' mastery that the word "Holocaust" is never mentioned in the book, but that we feel its ominous present on almost every page.

They four "displaced persons" are:
Dr. Henry Selwyn, the estranged and unworldly husband of the English landlady of the narrator. The narrator and his wife first meet him when they come to look at a house for rent in Norwich and in fact find him face down on the lawn, talking to the grass. When Dr. Selwyn was only seven, in 1899, his family emigrated from a village in Lithuania to England. It was their intention to go to New York, but the boat dumped all emigrants in London, where they unknowingly for a long time kept searching for the Statue of Liberty. In this way, the originally Jewish Dr Selwyn, who had a distinguished career as a medical doctor, could remain untouched by the horrors of Nazism. However, it is clear that psychologically he increasingly suffers under the shadow of the (never mentioned) Holocaust - that is the reason he gradually dissolves most relations with other humans and only feels close to plants and animals. At the same time, Dr Selwyn doesn't like to speak about the past and it is only via chance meetings that the narrator hears part of his life story. Dr Selwyn finally commits suicide by shooting himself.
Paul Bereyter, the primary school teacher of the narrator in a town called "S" in southern Germany. The story is triggered when the narrator reads a small notice of the death by suicide of his old teacher. Although partly Jewish, and therefore having trouble finding work in Germany in the 1930s, Paul Bereyter has served in the Wehrmacht because at that time he felt his identity was "German." After the war he leads a quiet life as an inspirational school teacher, who takes his pupils often out of the classroom. But after his pension he moves to France, not feeling at home in Germany anymore - as his grandfather was Jewish, he gradually realizes he belongs to the "exiles." He finally commits suicide by lying down on the railroad.
Ambros Adelwarth, a long-dead great uncle of the narrator. During a visit to relatives living in New Jersey, the narrator hears the story of this great uncle. In his youth, in the early 20th century, Uncle Adelwarth has emigrated from Germany to the U.S. where he became the traveling companion (both valet and lover) of a young man from a wealthy Jewish family who wandered around the world (the narrator paraphrases his diaries to tell about this period). They visit casinos and famous hotels were the pre-WWI jetset used to seek its enjoyment. When his companion has become mentally ill, Uncle Adelwarth continues serving the same family as a butler on their estate on Long Island. After his pension, he suffers from depression and undergoes an electroshock treatment whereby his memories seem to be dissolved. He finally dies in a mental institution.
Max Aurach (in the English version: Feber), an expatriate German-Jewish painter. He scratches his paintings as much as 40 times away, until they become veritable "images of the lost." The young narrator (who has come to the U.K. to study) meets him in the dilapidated city of Manchester. Years later, the painter gives the narrator the diary of his mother, which describes her idyllic life as a girl in a Bavarian village in the early 20th c. It was written as she and her husband awaited deportation to the Nazi death camps. In this way, the narrator gradually discovers the effects of the Holocaust on Aurach/Ferber and his family.

In the above, I have on purpose spoken about "the narrator" and not "Sebald." I wanted to make clear that we should distinguish between the two - although the narrator shares many autobiographical elements with Sebald, The Emigrants is a work of fiction. That same fictionality is true for the four narratives: these "biographies" ring very true, but we know that Sebald included fictional elements, making them rather "mock biographies." For example, the painter in the fourth story is a composite, fictional figure, partly based on the real Frank Auerbach, a German-born painter with a Jewish background working in London, who indeed paints in the style described by Sebald. But Sebald has said in an interview that he has never met Auerbach and in order to protect Auerbach's privacy, he changed the name of the painter in the English translation from "Aurach" into "Feber." This of course means that the diary of the mother of the painter is also fictional, or that Sebald used another diary here. And so there are more instances revealing the ultimate fictionality of the biographies - which does not alter the fact that the book as a whole points at a higher truth.

There is one more fictional element that all four stories have in common: In all of them suddenly a man (in the last story, a boy) with a net catching butterflies appears - this obviously is the famous author Vladimir Nabokov, who was a great butterfly fan and spent all his holidays hunting butterflies, either in the U.S. or Europe. The inclusion of Nabokov is more than just a post-modern joke - after all, also Nabokov was an "emigrant," exiled from Russia by the Revolution, and his autobiography is significantly called "Speak, Memory."

Sebald illustrates his mix of fact and fiction with small blurry black-and-white photographs which are another form of "memories," but here, too, we can never be sure we have to do with real documents - teasingly, they may, or may not, be photographs of the places and people in the narrative.

What Sebald shows in a masterly fashion is how our lives are constituted by chance, how they rather randomly consist of both realized and unrealized possibilities. On top of that, for Sebald the major elements of life are not the great themes of love, truth or friendship - but rather unremitting loneliness and permanent disquiet.

No life develops as originally scripted, "life stories" only exist in Hollywood films. In fact, life can be stranger than fiction, as in the story about Dr Selwyn, who tells the narrator about his friendship with a Swiss mountain guide - until that guide suddenly disappeared. Long after the death of Dr Selwyn, the narrator reads in a paper that the body of exactly this guide has been found in a retreating glacier, many decades after his death. "And so they are ever returning to us, the dead," he concludes.

A very profound work of fiction, that gains from repeated readings.

P.S. Sebald, who since 1970 lived permanently in England where he taught at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, was himself an emigrant as well.

English translation by Michael Hulse, published by New Directions.
See my review of The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald for more information about the author.

November 18, 2014

"The Following Story" by Cees Nooteboom (Best Novellas)

The novella The Following Story by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom is - at less than 100 pages - a little gem. It is also a strange and uncanny story, although told with the necessary humor. A man who as usual went to bed in his apartment in Amsterdam, to his surprise wakes up in a hotel room in a different country. What has happened to him? What kind of metaphysical mystery has him in its grip? Is he still alive?

[Socrates in the Vatican Museum - Wikipedia (German)]

The man called Hermann Mussert (a surname with a notorious connotation as this is also the name of the leader of the National Socialist Movement in Holland before and during WWII, who was executed for high treason) is in his fifties; he used to be a teacher of Greek and Latin, until he lost his job, after which he became a writer of popular travel guides. He is not an attractive man - not for nothing was his nickname as a teacher "Socrates" (the Greek philosopher was reputedly one of the ugliest men in history) - and a typical intellectual who only lives for his books and study - of course he is unmarried and lives alone. He is obsessed by Greek and Roman literature, and especially by the mythology as described in the Metamorphoses of Ovid.

But twenty years ago he was harshly pulled into ordinary life (the life of other mortals) when a rather forceful and outspoken female colleague started an affair with him - to take revenge on her husband who was having his own affair with one of his pupils. The affair with the female colleague, a biology teacher called Maria Zeinstra, started in the same hotel room in Lisbon where he now finds himself, and the next day he spends his time walking through Lisbon, bringing back memories of his life and especially of what happened twenty years ago. The pangs and pleasures of memory bring him to the fundamental question of his identity, and what he has done with his life. They are also filled with an inexpressible melancholy.

And then, in the second half of the novella, the scene suddenly changes, as the man takes passage on a mysterious ship that sails west, and finally will reach South-America where it enters the mouth of the Amazon. There is only a handful of other passengers, who seem to be in the same circumstances, plus a woman, a sort of guide. They are from different walks of life and only thrown together by accident, as travelers usually are. Gradually we understand that they are all dead, shades as in classical mythology, on their way to Hades. When the ship enters the mouth of the Amazon, the passengers one by one are invited to tell their life story, after which they have to follow the guide and disappear. They all tell how they died. The teacher is the last one to tell his story and he starts with the words that he will tell "the following story" - at which point the novella ends, for this is the story we have just been reading.

As the author has indicated, the two parts of the story represent the first few moments during and after dying: at first, one sees the most important scenes of one's life flashing before one's eyes; next, one leaves the earth. Nooteboom is not religious in the traditional sense, so he doesn't conjure up a heaven or paradise - he uses images from classical Greek and Roman mythology, as that is the specialty of the teacher - and mixes these with the contemporary insight that death is the end: in life we are a collection of a particular set of atoms, after death these atoms will be scattered and their function will change so that even they will have no memory of the body they once formed.

The scenes that appear before his eyes the moment the teacher in the story dies, have been the crucial ones in his life, because this was a time that he was untrue to himself. This truth is buried deep in the story and never stated in so many words. For the relation with the biology teacher was not a tale of love: Maria was an overbearing, assertive and - as Dutch can be - aggressively outspoken person and just swept the shy classical language teacher, who had no experience in love or life, from his feet. She didn't love him, and the way she spoke to him shows that she in fact looked down on him. She only used him for taking revenge on her philandering husband. That husband is a teacher at the same school and has an affair with a beautiful pupil, Lisa d'India. She is the best pupil also in Latin and Greek, and much admired by our protagonist. He is even secretly in love with her, perhaps without being wholly aware of that.

As events develop, Lisa sends him a letter, and he receives it while the biology teacher is standing next to him. Maria Zeinstra demands that he throws the letter away, unseen, or else she will stop loving him. The meek classical teacher obeys, and so throws away his own chance of happiness - this was the crucial moment in which he failed Lisa d'India and himself, something which he only now realizes as it had been buried deeply in his consciousness. That same day, he gets involved in a fist fight with Maria's husband, after which both teachers are sacked; and Lisa d'India dies in a car accident.

Finally Hermann Mussert discovers who he is, and the answer is not a pleasant one.

First published in Dutch with the title Het volgende verhaal in 1991. The English translation was made by Ina Rilke and published in 1994. A Vintage paperback edition has followed in 2014 (with a foreword by David Mitchell). The German edition was translated by Helga van Beuningen and published by Suhrkamp in 1991; this led to a breakthrough for Nooteboom in Germany, where Die folgende Geschichte was not only highly praised by critics (as Marcel Reich-Ranicki of Das Literarische Quartett) but also led to highly successful sales (seven printings in only the first three months). 
Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau