Thursday, September 17, 2015

Shadow of Reality: So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano (Translated from the French by Euan Cameron)

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Jean Daragane is a middle age intelligent person who has withdrawn to a life of comfortable isolation in his apartment.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.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

True Heart: The Swans of Fifth Avenue a novel by Malanie Benjamin

The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a novel of imagined experience, focusing on the relationship between author Truman Capote and socialite Babe Paley. The “Swans” consist of Babe and her friends beginning in the 1950s who live lives of wealth so great that appearances dominate every moment of their existence. The money comes from former and present marriages to men who pursue their careers leaving social obligation details to their wives. Time seems to hang heavy on the attractive to beautiful women, and they fill it with obsessive attention to personal grooming, stylish clothing, soirees, traveling from one lavish residence to another, spending time on ocean liner sized private yachts, and frequent elaborate lunches at New York City’s finest and most exclusive restaurants. The paparazzi of the time were welcomed to take photos of the women posing for studies in opulence. No camera could catch the urgently churning webbed feet of the swans struggling to maintain appearances, the photos showing only the serene aimless floating of the lovely creatures.

Truman entered into this “lush life” perceived by people who count as a handsome, witty, and talented writer. He loves the vibrant scene of the City and uses his charisma, talent, and work for Vogue to insinuate himself into the social stratosphere of Fifth Avenue. The wealthy men seem happy to have gay and exuberant Truman around to act as a diversion for their wives. Few people knew the psychological importance/dependence “Tru” fostered in the intelligent, lonely, and aimless socialites. This was especially true of Truman and Babe who recognized at first glance the vulnerability and insecurity in each other just below the surface of the public personas they affected. In a way, the love affair that developed between Truman and Babe was like that of Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; love requited in all aspects but one.

Melanie Benjamin states in an author’s note that she had no inside information about the beautiful people in her novel. She was not a member of their circle, but she did research the public history of them. The fiction is in the writer’s imagination of the dialogues and monologues of the real life characters behind closed social barriers and closed doors of expensive restaurants, hotels, and residences. Since the story is about “a way you’ll never be,” readers are caught up in the mesmerizing interaction of the characters by their external conversations and internal ruminations. Benjamin is so effective at imagining the public and private experiences of Babe, Truman, and the members of the tribe that readers will forget that The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a work of fiction. Readers also may feel they are welcome visitors to the rare atmosphere of the highest social class of people in business, the arts, and public media. Readers will not envy the swans and their connections, but rather will be one of them. As I read the excellent novel, I kept thinking of a song that I have enjoyed for many years, Natalie Cole’s interpretation of Lush Life by Billy Strayhorn.

This is a wonderfully entertaining novel that will bring back active echoes of the past for the older reader, interesting social history for the less seasoned adult readers, and glimpses of bizarre behavior that occurred in ancient history for young adults.