Patrick Modiano has written more than 20 novels and has received multiple awards for his writing. In 2014, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, wonderfully translated from the French by Euan Cameron, Modiano gives the reader a view of life in Paris through the constricted paranoid consciousness of a successful novel writer.
Jean Daragane is a middle age intelligent person who has withdrawn to a life of comfortable isolation in his apartment. He has a history of residence changes in Paris with a common characteristic for each venue of an escape route from the building and an anchor to the reality of Paris life outside his window. In his current home, Jean is able to look at a tree in a park across the street giving him a stable immediate connection with the living world and positive childhood memories of Paris. This action of needing only a view of the outside world for peace of mind is reminiscent of the behavior of Meursault in The Stranger by Albert Camus. Jean is not home bound, however, and likes to take daily walks in Paris enjoying the flora, especially in summer.
Jean has relegated his past history to books he has written, novels that are psychologically autobiographical. Once he has written a fictional piece, he does not re-read it or think about the memories that were the foundation of the novel. His oeuvre, however, is like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray describing the unconscious evolution of the emotion of his past. The emotion spills out of his repressed memories when he is contacted by an advertising agency employee who has a found a notebook that Jean has lost and forgotten in a Cafeteria.
Gilles Ottolini and an assistant Chantal Grippay telephone Jean to arrange a meeting to return the notebook. Jean responds to a vague proposal by the two strangers to write an article based on a name discovered in the notebook.
Receiving a personal call is such a rare event that the reclusive writer agrees to meet with Gilles and Chantal because of fear of blackmail on the one hand and excitement of meeting new people and breaking out of his loneliness and isolation on the other. Jean soon discovers that sharing information from his notebook triggers an emotional revisit to his childhood that leads him away from the peaceful summer memories of walking the tree lined Paris boulevards and sun filled parks in the city. He finds that the results of trauma can be hidden from consciousness, but the childhood emotional reactions to them are as powerful as they were forty years ago.
I really enjoyed reading this novel with its keen psychological insight of the characters and lyrical of descriptions of the atmosphere of Paris. My overall very positive experience of reading the novel was like the one I had reading surrealist Andre Breton’s novel, Nadia. I look forward to reading more of the novels of Patrick Modiano.