Book review: Patrick Modiano – Sleep of Memory
by Thomas Blake
Ghosts are a species of repetition, and repetition can cause fear in two distinct ways. There is the fear of monotony, of unchangingness, of being stuck in an eternal loop; this is essentially the fear of death, because death is the end of growth and the end of difference. Then there is the fear, apparently contradictory, of the other. This is subtle but palpable. It counts among its many faces the type of fear that is derived from what we call the uncanny – by doppelgängers, by the recognisable rendered weird by slight change. Doubling, when that doubling is imperfect. The surprise of something dead returning to life. We are doomed – the word doomed itself is always used to provoke fear – to repeat, and when we repeat we essentially become ghosts of ourselves, and often meet and part from the other ghosts on their own repetitive rounds.
Paris is a city of haunted repetitions.
Patrick Modiano’s whole body of writing is a series of haunted repetitions. Here is an extract from Sleep of Memory, his first new book to be published in English since he won the 2014 Nobel:
We entered the botanical gardens and followed the path to the zoo. The little boy ran ahead of us, then turned around and ran back, pretending to escape from invisible pursuers; sometimes he ducked behind a tree trunk. I asked if he was her son. Yes. Was she married? No. She lived alone with her boy. In short, we had found each other again six years later in the same street where we’d first met, but it didn’t seem as if any time had passed. On the contrary, it had stopped, and our first encounter was recurring, with a variation: the presence of a child. And we would meet yet again, in that same street, as the hands of a watch come together every day at noon and midnight. Moreover, on the evening when I’d met her for the first time, at the occult bookstore on Rue Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire, I had bought a book whose title had struck me: The Eternal Return of the Same.
The references here and elsewhere in the novel to the occult are a new and important addition to Modiano’s work. In older books the occult is hinted at, here it is discussed more openly. The rest, though, is pure Modiano. The mysterious relationships between characters, the returns, the subtle variations, the coalescence of past, present and, in this case, future (we feel the boy, escaping from imaginary but sinister agents, is in some way implicated in the larger picture, though he does not yet know it). And of course there is Paris, a city whose streets, in Modiano’s world, can be read like a palimpsest – remove one layer of its history and there is another, whose meaning is maddeningly and satisfyingly familiar, always a little out of reach.
To label Modiano as an author who writes about memory is both true and restrictive. It leads on to accusations of nostalgia that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is no comfort in remembering: Modiano’s past is a past of pain, uncertainty and, concretely, crime. As Thomas J. Millay wrote in a recent and illuminating review of Sleep of Memory (LARB, 2018), ‘Modiano remembers only to forget, or remembers only to enable forgetting’.
Forgetting, or partial memory, is the mother of the haunted repetitions that trickle through Modiano’s work. Sleep of Memory‘s title provides a clue here: sleep implies a change of state, even a temporary loss of memory, its distortion through interruption and through dream. The mystery of dream, the combinations, endless combinations of years of human connections described or implied, the crimes committed or imagined (and the Damoclean sword of potential capture), the melancholy that, as Millay writes, is ‘formulated with precision’, these are the things that bring us back to Modiano, so that we end up haunting his texts, another of his infinite band of ghosts.
Silence is the key to living in a large city: the ability to find silence or, if you can’t find it, to imagine it successfully. Silence enables you to take stock, to catalogue your past, as Modiano does in all of his novels. It allows small details space. Things rise to the surface. New characters emerge. Old characters turn up in unexpected places. Plot is the noise that happens after these silences have dredged up their secrets.
Silence in Sleep of Memory is, unusually for Modiano, embodied in a human character: Madeleine Péraud. She is an occultist whose house is a kind of oasis of silence. Even her doorbell is ‘spindly, muted’, and she exudes a kind of calm only seen in misguided and entirely confident spiritualists. The section of the novel in which she questions the protagonist (it’s difficult to refrain from referring to him simply as ‘Modiano’) is the strangest of passages, a lucid dream in prose, stilted and uncomfortable, somehow removed from the outside world. Her questions are like air bubbles in the silence, and when they burst they allow the distorted air of the past to swirl into the room. The protagonist suspects he has been hypnotised. The reader comes to form a similar suspicion.
The front cover of the Yale Margellos edition of Sleep of Memory contains a small black and white photograph by Fred Van Schagen of one of the many bridges of Paris. The clean, semi-circular arch frames a human silhouette (a silhouette is itself a haunted image – the familiar shape made mysterious or unknowable by the tricks of darkness and light). At first glance, the figure under the bridge appears to be a single person. On closer inspection it reveals itself as a couple in an ambiguous embrace. They are lit from behind – the background is almost white. They look like an image from a Rorschach test, except that the symmetry is just off. It is an invitation to interpret, a challenge, before we even open the book, to convert the symbolic into the real. The man and the woman. Doubling, joining, perhaps parting.
Look harder at the photograph and you will notice another couple, further away and appearing much smaller, walking along the Seine. Is it another couple, or the same couple at a different time? Which is the ghost couple and which is the original? This is a mystery, like all of Modiano’s mysteries, that leads only to further mysteries.