It takes less than two pages in Patrick Modiano’s new novel for the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature to name the eternal motive of his writing. We’re talking about the “slivers of memory” “that he tried to write down as quickly as possible: images from a period of his life that he saw passing in fast motion before they finally sank into oblivion.”
The fact that these images repeat themselves and yet look a little different each time is part of Modiano’s literature. Just as there is something familiar about reading every new novel by this French writer. It’s a kind of coming home that still takes some getting used to and is always followed by a new enchantment.
“On the way to Chevreuse” is Modiano this time. Or much more: one of his writing alter egos is on his way there, namely Jean Bosmans, who was last used in the 2013 novel “Der Horizont”. Chevreuse is the name of a municipality located around 30 kilometers south-west of Paris, which Bosmans sees as a “principality” of forests, ponds, groves and parks.
More importantly, there is a house here that Bosmans spent some time in as a child, so he has childhood memories associated with it. A long time ago, as a young man and aspiring writer at the age of 20 or 25, he wanted to snatch these from oblivion and fix them.
As is so often the case, Patrick Modiano is traveling on three levels of time. Bosmans recalls in the present how he was confronted with his childhood fifty years earlier, around the mid to late 1960s: in the form of place names like Chevreuse or Auteuil; through people who met him during this time; and precisely through that house in the Rue du Docteur-Kurzenne in which he lived for a while and which is also of interest to some shady characters because of a stolen property that may have been hidden there.
This house and its address should look familiar to Modiano readers. In his frankly autobiographical book A Family Tree, the writer, born in Boulogne-Billancourt in 1945, recounts how he and his brother lived here in 1952 with a friend of his mother’s, Suzanne Bouquerau. The mother was meanwhile on a theater tour.
It was “a coming and going of strange women” in the house, it says in “A Family Tree”. Among them was a certain Rose-Marie Krawell, “owner of a hotel in the rue de Vieux-Colombier, who drove an American car” – and who now also plays a not inconsiderable role in the new novel.
And in his novel “Straflass”, published long before this autobiography, one of Modiano’s finest, one full of childhood impressions, the house is even the central setting, with a “terraced garden” behind it, albeit on a street, the Rue du Docteur – Dordaine is called.
Here the narrator of the “penalty” (he is ten years old there) and his younger brother are cared for by several women for a year; but a few men also go in and out here. Among them a Roger Vincent, who now reappears in Chevreuse with a different first name, namely Guy, although only in photos and with his name. He is said to have once said to Bosmans after the latter had handed him a letter addressed to Roger Vincent: “You know, I change my first name from time to time.”
Patrick Modiano always owes the interplay of forgetting and remembering to the names of people and places. The magic that emanates from them is quite different from that of Marcel Proust, whose memory fetishism Modiano shares.
For Proust’s narrator, place names, names in general, serve to arouse a desire for certain places or people. In this way he imagines them to be even more beautiful and grandiose than they are, and he is then repeatedly confronted with the less beautiful reality. But also with the habit of doing her work without pity, as in the case of Madame de Guermantes.
With Modiano, on the other hand, the many names are the engines of memory. If this does not want to appear at all, at least the names remain as a remnant. For example, in the “Strafverlass” novel there is a list with the names of 25 car repair shops that have long since ceased to exist.
And what is it called in “On the way to Chevreuse”? “Auteuil. The name sounded strange. Auteuil.” Or: “Chevreuse. The name might attract other names like a magnet.” Or, about Guy Vincent, “Maybe just the simple sound of that name impressed him.”
It all begins with the names, then memory sets in and Bosmans strives to bring the past to life. Dark mysteries lurk in this in turn, since criminals also accompanied the life of young Jean.
Even “penalty release” ends with the police searching the house on the Rue du Docteur-DordMidaine after all the adult residents except the children have been flown out. In “On the Road to Chevreuse” it is a room in which additional hiding places have been built into the walls.
Bosmans tries to make connections between the many characters and their names and to become aware of his story. Most importantly, he writes and turns all of this into a novel: “He had stolen their lives and even their names, and they would only exist in the pages of this book”.
It is not always easy to follow the story of this novel, which can hardly be described as such. Modiano often imperceptibly changes time levels, and these are primarily fragments of memory.
In “On the Road to Chevreuse”, Modiano names his poetology more openly than in a long time. The search for lost childhood and lost time is the supreme motif of his literature, and the transformation into a novel is paramount. The narrator is all the more grateful that over the years new details about “some of his characters”, about Camille Lucas, Martine Hayward, Guy (or just: Roger) Vincent and Rose-Marie Krawell have been brought to him: “What proved there were blurring lines between real life and fiction.”
This basically applies to the entire work of this writer. Again and again Patrick Modiano draws from his own life, he tries to fill the gaps in his memory. After all, it is only logical that “Unterwegs nach Chevreuse” ends with a dream: Some secrets of this novel, which in parts is not even that accessible, remain open.