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Translation of a Nobel winner

We admire a brace of Modianos

    Patrick Modiano in attendance for the Nobel award ceremony in 2014
    Patrick Modiano in attendance for the Nobel award ceremony in 2014

    Pedigree

    By Patrick Modiano
    (trans: Mark Polizzotti)

    Maclehose Press, £14.99

    So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood

    By Patrick Modiano (trans: Euan Cameron)
    Maclehose Press, £14.99

    Every year, the run- up to the Nobel Prize for Literature is the same. British journalists speculate about whether this is at last Philip Roth's year and then they scramble for information when it goes to some non-English-speaking writer they have never heard of.

    In 2014, the prize went to Patrick Modiano, a French Jewish writer in his late 60s. He had written almost 30 novels and three screenplays (including Lacombe, Lucien, directed by Louis Malle). Only a handful had been translated in Britain. But another five have been translated in the past year so now we are in a position to start taking stock.

    It is apparent that Modiano is one of the great French writers of his generation. Pedigree is a memoir, following his life from early childhood to his first novel in 1968. It is full of strange, quirky people who drifted in and out of his parents' lives

    Patrick Modiano was born in July 1945 in the suburbs of Paris. His parents were monstrous, taking no interest in their son. His father, Albert, was from an Italian Sephardi family who spent the war moving in "the murky, clandestine world of the black market… I could never establish a bond between us," writes his son. His mother was a Belgian actress - "I can't recall a single act of genuine warmth or protectiveness from her."

    Their second son, Rudy, died aged 10. Patrick was sent to stay with grandparents and friends of his mother's. In his teens he was sent to boarding school. Pedigree ends with a vicious exchange of letters with his father, who clearly hated his surviving son.

    Then, as he writes his first novel, he walks around Paris. "I had set sail before the worm-eaten wharf could collapse. It was time."

    His newest novel, So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, has all Modiano's virtues. Jean Daragane is a French writer, living in Paris. One day, his phone rings. Gilles Ottolini has found Daragane's lost address book. Ottolini wants to meet Daragane to return it. He is particularly interested in one entry in his address book, someone called Guy Torstel. As the novel twists and turns, it gets more and more complicated. There is a dead woman. And, perhaps most mysterious of all, a passport photo of a young man.

    The novel, like all of Modiano's work, moves back and forth in time as Daragane reflects on his childhood, his parents and the lost world of 1950s Paris. There is something else, too. The novel is all about books within books, writings within writings.

    Finally, like his memoir, Modiano's novel is about strange, often exotic characters, who drift in and out of Daragane's life. Solitary, unsure of who he is, Daragane meets these peculiar people as he tries to track down his past.

    Most intriguingly, the book is extraordinarily detailed. It is full of names, books and addresses. But it is also curiously mysterious, a "dense and viscous mess", a kind of labyrinth. "[Ottolini] groped around, he got lost among crossed paths, he was incapable of reaching the heart of the matter."

    Like many of Modiano's books, this is a mix of a traditional French policier, a detective story, and a modernist book about books and texts, which is more like something by Marguerite Duras or W G Sebald. The greatest mystery of all, though, is why Modiano was ignored for so long in the English-speaking world.

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