When Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014 he was virtually unknown outside France. He is a prolific author, with 30 books published in French, but very few had been translated into English. Yale University press promptly picked up several of them for American publication, and now Amazon teems with Modiano offerings.
The Kindle edition I read was promoted by the New York Review of Books, which supports many old or under-read novels that I’ve enjoyed in recent months.
I knew nothing of Modiano when the Nobel award was announced, but I started looking around among his works and settled on Young Once (original title Une Jeunesse), for several reasons, not the least of which was that the New York Times called him “Marcel Proust for our time.” I am not inclined to argue.
Young Once is a coming-of-age novel set in the postwar years, with its roots deep in the small and not-so-small cons and tricks the Parisians employed to stay alive during the German occupation. Modiano’s own father skirted the edge of the Resistance, more involved in staying alive than in making a political point. The father of his protagonist was a bicyclist of some note who rode at the Vel’ (for Vélodrome) d’Hiver, the Winter Stadium best known as the collection point for French Jews rounded up for deportation in 1942. It was part of one of the buildings left over from the World’s Fair that ended in 1900 and is remembered with a plaque near its location, which is just a few hundred yards from the Eiffel Tower (Google Maps).
The charm of “Young Once” will be obvious to anyone who knew Paris in the ’60s. I was there early in the 1970s, when not much had changed, and the book brings back the memories of dark streets, cheap hotels, and neighborhood restaurants where a good lunch could be had for less than a dollar. Despite what you read about the “Trente Glorieuses,” the glorious thirty years of rapid recovery after the war, times were still tough. In 1960 the Marshall Plan had only been operating for ten years, and it takes longer than that to recover from a national catastrophe that cuts 70% from GDP.
The story is simple and the writing is understated (in Damion Searls’s expert translation):
Louis Memling, not yet 20, is discharged from his national military service and takes up with a shady character, Brossier, who promises him what he wants most: waterproof shoes with thick crepe soles, and an overcoat. His new friend provides them.
While Brossier is out of town on one of his mysterious business trips, Louis meets Odile, a painfully timid girl who lost her job in a perfumerie for shoplifting a few lipsticks, but has ambitions of being a singer. Her first patron helps her cut an audition record, then kills himself. She, a minor, is picked up at a police roadblock and forced to be bait for a rapist. In desperation, with no friends and two francs less than she needs for her coffee, she goes to a café, where Louis finds her. From then on they are inseparable.
Brossier finds Louis the job he promised, as a night porter at a questionable auto-rental company. It soon turns to money-laundering (remember: this was the time of international capital controls and there was no EU). The first trip, to England, goes well.
It’s a subsequent assignment that changes the course of Louis and Odile’s lives. A felony, plus the passage of time, turns them from petty criminals into substantial citizens with a house in the Alps, far away from France.
Modiano became known in the United States as the co-writer of “Lacombe, Lucien,” the 1973 film about the French Milice (the French branch of the Gestapo), co-written by Louis Malle, who directed.
Young Once: Highly recommended for Paris lovers and fans of sparsely written, penetrating literature. Originally published, in French, in 1985. NYRB edition March 2016.
I read the Kindle edition, published by NYRB Classics, which I bought from Amazon at this page. $9.99. Also available in paperback.
Related sites you may enjoy:
Patrick Modiano Wikipedia page
Patrick Modiano: the Nobel Prize-winner nobody had read (The Telegraph)
The Unforgotten: Patrick Modiano’s mysteries (The New Yorker)
Patrick Modiano, an Author of Paris Mysteries, Keeps His Own (The New York Times)
Kirkus review (which gets the time of the action wrong)
About the Author and translator (from Amazon)
Patrick Modiano was born in the Boulogne-Billancourt suburb of Paris near the end of the Nazi occupation of France. He studied at the Lycée Henri-IV and the Sorbonne. As a teenager he took geometry lessons with the writer Raymond Queneau, who would play a key role in his development. He has written more than thirty works of fiction, including novels, children’s books, and the screenplay for Louis Malle’s film Lacombe, Lucien. In 2014, Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Damion Searls has translated many classic twentieth-century writers, including Marcel Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elfriede Jelinek, Christa Wolf, Hans Keilson, and Hermann Hesse. For NYRB Classics, he edited Henry David Thoreau’s The Journal: 1837–1861 and has translated Nescio, Nietzsche, Robert Walser, Alfred Döblin, and André Gide. He is currently writing a book about Hermann Rorschach and the cultural history of the Rorschach test.