So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood: Memory and the tricks we play on it

Cover imageThis is the first novel I’ve read by the famously reclusive Nobel Prize-winning Patrick Modiano. He’s been on my list since I read Victoria’s excellent piece on him at Tales from the Reading Room. He also made a little cameo appearance in The Red Notebook which I read a little while ago and when So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood arrived it seemed that this year was set to be my Modiano year. It’s a compelling, unsettling novella about memory and the tricks it plays on us, or rather the tricks we play on it.

Author Jean Daragane is startled from the silence of his Paris flat by a phone call. It’s at least three months since the phone last rang, disturbing his carefully maintained solitude. The caller, who identifies himself as Gilles Ottolini, has rung to tell Daragane that his address book has been found. Suspicious at Ottolini’s slightly threatening tone, Daragane agrees to meet him in a café. He’s hardly missed the address book – rarely needs such a thing – and wonders if he should ignore the appointment. When he turns up Ottolini is there with a young, ethereally beautiful woman who calls herself Chantal. Ottolini has found a number for Guy Torstel in Daragane’s address book and wants to pick his brains about the man whose name appeared in his first novel several decades ago. It seems that Daragane’s suspicions may be justified, and all the more so when Chantal rings him at 2 am then turns up with Ottlolini’s ‘dossier’ on Torstel. Odd overlaps between the couple’s story and Daragane’s past emerge. He begins to remember the woman he lived with for a year as little boy, the parade of shady figures who visited her house. What happened there? How did his ‘fickle parents’ come to leave him with Annie who several people knew had been imprisoned? Who were the people who visited at odd hours? Modiano leaves a whole string of questions unanswered in this novella, hardly longer than a short story but packing a powerful punch.

Modiano’s book is quietly understated. Its unsettling tone and shifting narrative leaves the reader constantly on edge wondering what Ottolini and Chantal are up to, then what happened to Daragane as a child. Daragane is the quintessential unreliable narrator, frequently reiterating how flimsy his memories are: drifting ‘away like bubbles of soap or fragments of a dream that vanished on waking’; ‘a faraway voice picked up late at night on the radio’. He can barely remember the first novel he wrote let alone the details of what may have happened over forty years ago but as he tells us ‘In the end, we forget the details of our lives that embarrass us or are too painful’. It’s a perplexing novel, one that will stay with me for some time, I think. It’s not a book to be read if you’re hoping for a solution to a mystery – gripping though that is – more one to read for the elegant beauty of its writing and its reflections on what we remember and what we choose not to.

6 thoughts on “So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood: Memory and the tricks we play on it

  1. MarinaSofia

    I haven’t read this particular book, but the themes and style sound familiar from other Modiano books. There is something unsettling and unresolved in his books (much like in life itself, I suppose). And he has a wonderful way of dissecting memory and its foibles.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      That describes this one very well, Marina. Beautiful writing, too, elegantly translated by Anthea Bell.

      Reply
  2. JacquiWine

    This sounds very interesting Susan. I wonder if the fragility of memory is one of Modiano’s favourite themes? From the reviews I’ve read, much of his work seems to touch on memories and the search for people from the past.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Marina’s comments suggests that’s the case, Jacqui. He’s an intriguing author, well worth exploring his work.

      Reply
  3. litlove

    Oh I am so glad you enjoyed it! I do love him, although essentially he writes variations on a theme the whole time. But the point is never the revelation (which doesn’t come) but the searching and sifting through our unreliable selves, which is always available to us in a way closure rarely is. I haven’t read this one – I wonder what the original title is in French?

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thanks so much for putting me on the trail, Victoria. You’re quite right about the revelation the desire for which which is the thing that grips you first but gradually slips into the background as that sifting process takes over. Sadly there’s no sign of the French title anywhere in the English edition but MacLehose Press should be able to help you with that.

      Reply

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