SCENE OF THE CRIME
by Patrick Modiano
translated by Mark Polizzotti
Yale University Press, 157 pages
reviewed by Jeanne Bonner
I write down all kinds of little snippets of thought because otherwise they will float away.
For example, one day in the small notebook I keep in my car, I scrawled, “I think I am losing my fingerprints.”
Sometimes I write as if in a trance. I must—otherwise it’s difficult to explain this command that I recorded one day: “Map my brain.”
You could say it’s a call for a decoder ring of sorts, or simply my secret instructions to an artist I have yet to find, one who can draw the ideas that paper the walls of my mind. Someone who can decipher the permanent mosaic of thoughts, from the moment as a child that I poured the bottle of Prell shampoo on the floor in the upstairs hallway, and my father swooped down to administer my punishment, to certain lines from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life (“How would you like living in the nicest house in town?”), plus the insistent rhythm of that French song partially sung in Spanish with a looping melody that’s about an endless journey, and which cannot be evicted from my brain.
The flicker of memories and thoughts we all have, in other words, but some of us pay very close attention to it.
To wit, French novelist Patrick Modiano. The flicker of thoughts and memories fueling his latest novel, Scene of the Crime, published by Yale University Press, largely concerns an event from decades before. An event that the main character recalls in dribs and drabs, and which he tries to capture in a notebook:
He jotted down thoughts as they flitted through his mind … It took only a detail, one that might have seemed insignificant to anyone else. That was it: a detail. The word “thought” wasn’t right. Too solemn. A multitude of details gradually filled entire pages of his blue notebook, apparently having no connection with one another, and so cursory that they would have been incomprehensible to someone trying to read them.
Modiano is already mapping his brain, and the results are on display in his 30-plus novels and books. In this new novel, the main character asks at the outset, “But how could he marshal all those signals and Morse code messages that stretched over a distance of more than fifty years? What was the common thread?”
These are seminal questions in the work of Modiano, and questions that undergird nearly all of his books.
In this new slim novel, he explores a remote period in the life of a character called Jean Bosmans who stumbles upon a series of coincidences involving his childhood home and a group of shady individuals who are alarmingly interested in his past.
The plot is par for the course for this French Nobel Laureate who has dedicated his literary career to exhuming the ghosts of wartime Paris through semi-autobiographical fiction.
The plot is also beside the point—and in some ways, I love that.
Nearly all of Modiano’s works touch on memory and childhood, as the author pieces together fictionalized episodes with his father, a shadowy figure who was on the run during World War II because of his Jewish heritage and willing to get his hands dirty to stay free. Born in 1945, Modiano has trained his gaze permanently on the war years that immediately preceded his birth, and the post-war years that are often referred to as the Thirty Glorious Years. As Alice Kaplan noted in a 2017 article for the Paris Review, Modiano likes to say he “is a child of the war.” She quotes him as saying: “Faced with the silence of our parents we worked it all out as if we had lived it ourselves.”
Modiano has been accused of writing the same book over and over. Many writers have been the subject of such an accusation and it’s probably true, but few are as magnanimous about it. Indeed, Modiano has admitted it during interviews, perhaps because he doesn’t see it as an insult or a problem.
I don’t either—I keep reading his work searching for the same elements, and am mesmerized by the tapestry of references and questions he puts together.
In fact, when I learned Yale was publishing yet another novel by Modiano, I scrambled to get a copy, secretly hoping it would be one more attempt by him to reconfigure his childhood. As it happens, the news that a new novel of his had been translated—in this case by Mark Polizzotti who has translated many of his titles—reached me after I’d gone on a Modiano tear.
I don’t often binge on books or movies. But last fall, I read Dora Bruder (in English and an Italian translation), The Black Notebook, and Invisible Ink, all by Modiano, in the space of a month while also re-reading Suspended Sentences (like the new book, translated by Polizzotti) and So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood (translated by Euan Cameron).
This last title, about a writer whose address book goes missing, was my first Modiano novel. The book of addresses is found by a mysterious man who alerts him to the discovery only after perusing its entries—and I’ve been hooked ever since.
I find his obsession with maps and addresses and half-remembered episodes from his childhood (often involving walks he took around Paris) fascinating. The new novel repeatedly references a particular street, Rue du Docteur-Kurzenne. He also mentions an old phone number before Paris converted to seven-digit numbers: AUTEUIL 15-28.
In a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine for the “Talk” column, Modiano suggested people might be surprised to learn he has old directories and phone books on his shelves. But the information would come as no surprise to anyone who has read a few of his books! His slim noirish novels are packed with references to street names, addresses and statistics culled from directories, which he also often references. To tell the story of a young Jewish girl who goes missing in Dora Bruder, for example, the author consults decades-old school registers, phone directories, arrest reports, and so-called “family files,” which were used by the prefecture of police after the Nazis took over. These tools aid him as he laboriously and endlessly tries to recreate the shape-shifting world that beguiles him, and many of us: childhood. I love the way he presents childhood as a puzzle we spend the rest of our lives trying to solve.
Take the reference to Rue du Docteur-Kurzenne. It is no idle detail. Glancing at Pedigree, his memoir (also translated by Polizzotti, who channels Modiano’s voice superbly), I see it’s a street where Modiano himself lived as a child. Oh, and the character named Jean? Well, that’s Modiano’s actual first name.
His obsession with perennially reconstructing his childhood mirrors my own (why can’t I forget the moment in the hallway when I poured the shampoo all over the floor? Perhaps because as memoirist Patricia Hampl says, our minds naturally hold onto memories with a heavy, emotional toll). But he is careful to point out in Pedigree that he does so without nostalgia (perhaps that’s why he writes fiction and not memoir). His father along with his mother, who performed in theater, frequently left Modiano in the care of friends. They were careless with him and his brother, who tragically died at age ten.
As Kaplan wrote for the Paris Review, Modiano’s father, Albert, traded goods on the black market, often mixing with unreputable characters, composites of whom show up in all of these novels. Albert Modiano eluded capture and Kaplan writes, “His son has spent a lifetime trying to fathom the combination of wit and accommodation that allowed his father to emerge from those years unscathed.”
A lifetime trying to fathom the mystery, and documenting his queries in semi-autobiographical novels that often feature a writer.
This constant work of excavation keeps Modiano busy, and as noted, he is quite prolific. Perhaps because of this approach, Modiano is not aware or doesn’t mind that Scene of the Crime falls short of his normally winning formula of suspense, mystery, regret and longing.
The new book is considered a kind of sequel to Suspended Sentences, which came out in 2014 in English and is the superior of the two books. What I love about Suspended Sentences is that we’re plunged into the life of one very sympathetic character, a young boy left in the care of friends of his parents (sound familiar?). Where are his parents and who are these people with whom the boy is forced to stay? It’s a natural mystery whose tension mounts as Modiano gives us pages about the boy going to various schools, and playing at an abandoned chateau with friends, including “the florist’s son.” He writes with great tenderness about this boy who is perennially watching the mysterious adults around him. Modiano also sketches in that previous novel the shaky relationship between the young boy and his often-absent father, imbuing their scenes with incredible longing.
That air of earned mystery, of longing, of remembrance is missing here. Jean Bosmans isn’t a character I find particularly sympathetic, in part because he’s not fully drawn. Indeed, Jean Bosmans turns out to be a writer—a detail that emerges somewhat late in the new novel. Modiano writes, “He had finished his book, and for the first time he had the curious sensation of getting out of prison after years of incarceration.” It’s an interesting image—to suggest he had been incarcerated by these memories, by the threat of confronting the shadowy people who wanted to know what he remembered. But Modiano hasn’t built up enough tension for this to work. It isn’t earned.
And I don’t care about Jean’s relationships—including his rapport with a character who’s nicknamed “Deathmask,” a nomenclature which rankles. Not the way I followed the boy’s meetings with his father in Suspended Sentences. And some of the key plot points emerge late. Toward the end of the book, Jean is told, “Apparently you witnessed something, fifteen years ago, in that house on Rue du Docteur-Kurzenne.” It takes 100 pages to elicit this remark, at which point I had already stopped caring about the house on Rue du Docteur-Kurzenne.
For Modiano obsessives like me, it doesn’t matter. I will read the next Modiano title that’s published and I am glad to have this one on my shelves. And when the next book or the one after that shows a return to form, I will be elated. The good news here is that the master is still at work. And his work may be different from what I seek as a reader—his work is the work of excavation, of putting the puzzle pieces together. This time, the solution to the puzzle wasn’t as satisfying. But he will keep trying to solve it—and I will keep reading his books to see if he does.