“One meets the strangest people in one’s life.” Indeed, and so it is in this somber trilogy of novellas from the recent French Nobel Prize winner.
Modiano’s work is unknown to most North American readers, and this is as good an introduction as any. The stories here highlight his concerns as a chronicler of the Occupation years and the lean times leading up to 1968; if they were films—and, it should be noted, Modiano is also a screenwriter; co-author, among other things, of the script for Lacombe Lucien (1974)—then Jean-Paul Belmondo would play several leads, always with a Gauloise stuck in his mouth at a moody, meaningful angle. The first story, Afterimage, concerns a mysterious photographer who works the chic world of fashion while maintaining a very private aura; the narrator announces at the beginning that he still knows only a little about Francis Jansen, who “did everything he could to be forgotten…completely dropping out of sight.” Jansen is the antithesis of what a swinging fashion photographer is supposed to be, as if Camus had a Rollei slung around his neck—and yet there he is, the owner of “a truth that we’ve intuited but kept hidden from ourselves, out of carelessness or cowardice.” Lean, existentially charged, the title story depicts a boy at the boundary of bourgeois society and the demimonde of the theater and circus, where people bear names such as Little Hélène and Snow White and have done some jail time. The Baudelarian title of the last story, Flowers of Ruin, signals that the reader should not expect a light farce, and indeed, a police report figures in the first few pages. In a preface, the translator notes that the stories were published several years apart but cohere nicely, and though they’re closely informed by the events of Modiano’s life, “it is important to remember that these are fictions.”
Yes, but fictions with a moral bite, depicting a world in which everyone, it seems, is complicit in crimes not yet specified. Moody, elegant and dour.