Novellas in Translation Week: So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood by Patrick Modiano, translated by Euan Cameron #NovNov22

2014 Nobel Prize-winner Patrick Modiano opens this novella with an epigraph from Stendhal:

I cannot provide the reality of events, I can only convey their shadow.

It acts as an almost perfect summation of this dream-like and unreliable narrative, which concerns Jean Daragane, an author of some minor renown who lives reclusively in his Paris apartment and likes it that way. One day, the quiet of his life is shattered when he receives a phone call from a stranger named Gilles Ottolini who claims to have found Daragane’s address book. Daragane did not even realise that he had lost the book and agrees to meet Ottolini at a café to retrieve it.

At the agreed meeting, Ottolini is accompanied by an enigmatic young woman named Chantal Grippay and it becomes clear to Daragane that all is not as it seems. Ottolini has a secondary motive in returning the address book. He has recognised a name in the address book and wants to get in touch with the person listed in it – one Guy Torstel – the only problem being that Daragane has no memory of this person at all. It appears that Guy Torstel featured as a character in one of Daragane’s early novels, and,  if he is a real person, as the listing in the address book would suggest, what is Daragane’s link to him and why does Ottolini want to find him?

Torstel’s name opens up a series of memories for Daragane which lead him to explore his own tumultuous childhood and the year’s he spent living in this very Paris suburb with a woman who was a friend of his mother’s and who inspired his first novel. As Chantal continues to surreptitiously get in touch with Daragane and warn him against Ottolini, whom she claims is a gambler, he finds himself in a situation where not only does he not know who to trust, but neither can he trust his own reminiscences.

This curious narrative completely subverts the noir genre by presenting a mystery and then refusing to solve it. Rather, Modiano’s novella occupies a kind of liminal space between place and memory, where nothing can be trusted and everything can mean something else. Are Daragane’s memories real, or are they fragments from his books? Modiano puts the reader in exactly the same situation as he puts his protagonist, drip-feeding information that confuses as much as it illuminates and all the while pulling us deeper into Daragane’s past.

I found So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood to be quite a strange read. At no point did I feel that I had a handle on what was going on, but the more I read the less that seemed to matter. Modiano is a master of atmosphere and the fragmentary nature of the prose and the beauty of the writing were enough to keep me reading. It is an enigmatic book and I get the feeling that shifting elusive nature of the reading experience is exactly the response that Modiano set out to achieve. Kudos to translator Euan Cameron for capturing the strange atmosphere of this equally strange book.

There are elements of the ghost story and the thriller here, but So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood defies categorisation. I found it to be a frustrating by ultimately impressive exploration of aging, memory and the stories with which we construct our lives.

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Novellas in November novels in translation

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

14 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I read this so long ago in the early days of my blog that I’d forgotten the detail but looking back on my review I had a similar reaction to you, describing it as ‘perplexing’ but loving the ‘elegant beauty’ of his writing. Interestingly, I’ve not read another Modiano.

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  2. Modiano is on an eternal quest for memory. It sounds like this book is not one of his best. His books are so easy to read in any language…and I recommend Rue des Boutiques Obscures. Modiano has earned his Nobel Prize… with words like “…we are all on a beach
    …the sand holds our footprint only for a few seconds.” (pg 72)..are breathtakingly beautiful.

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  3. Oh, don’t give up too soon on Modiano! Rue des Boutiques Obscures (1978) it worth a try. It has a wonderful “detective” feel as Modiano continues his eternal quest for memory.
    Guy Roland is looking for his past… his old friend has just died in a boating accident (suicide?)
    The only connection left to Guy’s past is an address in Rome from 1930…Rue des Boutiques. Great review and another novella for the reading list!

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  4. I read a collection of three of his novellas a few years back and had much the same reaction. In fact, they were all remarkably similar, and just as remarkably similar to this one as you describe it. I came to the conclusion he only had one story and just kept re-writing it, and I gave up halfway through the third one. My view in summary: “Clearly part of what Modiano is trying to do is highlight the uncertainty of memory, but I’m afraid that leaves it about as interesting as someone telling a lengthy joke and then admitting they’ve forgotten the punchline.”
    Not sure why he won a Nobel, to be honest…

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  5. Your impression of this book sounds a lot like the one I had when I read another one of his books a few years ago. I did enjoy it, though, and would be convinced to read another!

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