When I first learned that Modiano had won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, my first reaction was, “Who?” But I dutifully added him to my list of authors to explore. When I finally found several of his books on the shelf, I chose this not because of its length (just 120 pages), but because it was the only one that didn’t have the Holocaust mentioned on the back. (I often take self-imposed breaks from stories that relate to the Holocaust. Given this new survey though – http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/05/the-world-is-full-of-holocaust-deniers/370870/ – maybe I shouldn’t.)
I should have known better. The Holocaust is here, albeit at some distance, a distance some try to keep in almost surreal ways. Our narrator, Jean B., is moving in and out of time, in and out of place, and in and out of reality. Boundaries are blurring, and he has settled, comfortably, into the grey. We’re in Beckett country here.
Modiano’s prose is straightforward. He lets his details do the work and Barbara Wright, his translator, belongs to that school of translators that dictates that the translator’s job is to stay out of the way.
The cover art, a detail from The Philosopher’s Conquest by Giorgio de Chirico (here’s the whole thing – http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/30839) is the perfect choice. Verba Mundi, an International Literature Series, has produced a nice edition.
I look forward to more Modiano.
It was hard to resist putting a colon in that title, but my copy doesn’t have one, so I honored that.
This book was alternately fascinating, moving, funny, frustrating, ambitious, and dull.
It’s based around one moment in time (8 pm on June 23rd, 1975) and an apartment building in Paris. Perec catalogues the lives of its current and former inhabitants. He moves room by room and covers the stairways, basements, and the boiler room. Some chapters are short stories. Some are just lists (hence the word ‘catalogue’ above). Long lists. I read them all, though, except maybe everything that was in one family’s emergency kit in their basement storage area.
Many of the stories involve puzzles, including one man who sets out to paint the pictures for puzzles (for 20 years), has someone else make them into puzzles, and then puts them back together. He then has the images themselves dissolved by a chemical process. He wants a project that leaves no mark, though he (spoiler alert) sadly goes blind before he can achieve his life’s goal.
David Bellos deserves serious kudos for his work as a translator. The puns, the rhymes, the slogans, the lists – all of these must have been quite challenging.
I had a few thoughts along the way about the title, but nothing that felt compelling. Perec creates quite an intertwined community, both in terms of time and space.
I always wonder why certain authors get lost, and Perec is one I want to help re-discover. What a remarkable and original book. There are two stories here – a memoir and a dystopian vision of an island community that parallels Nazi Germany. I know, I know; there is so much Holocaust literature. But each individual section, as well as the juxtaposition of the two, compels contemplation. What does it mean to be a witness? What does it mean to stand by? How does atrocity happen while people are watching?
I’ve ordered another Perec book – Life: A User’s Manual. No kidding; find this author.