Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Review: Young Once

Young Once Young Once by Patrick Modiano
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been looking to read something of Modiano’s ever since he won the Nobel Prize in 2014, but, knowing nothing about him, I haven’t known where to start. After talking with one of the reps from New York Review of Books Publishers at MLA, I went with this one.

It’s hard to know how much of my reaction is colored by knowing this is a “world-class writer,” but I did enjoy it a lot. Under other circumstances, I might not have forgiven its ever-so-thin voice, its persistent minimalism, but reading it now I very much admire the way Modiano accomplishes so much with so few brushstrokes.

This begins with a brief frame narrative that lets us see Louis and Odile as they turn 35 years old and reflect on their early lives together, a period that saw them separately working with and exploited by post-World War II criminals. They’ve built a happy life together, and it seems natural to look back, to realize all at once they were indeed “young once.”

The flashback scenes then take up the rest of the novel, and they move so quickly it’s hard to keep up. In short, one to two page bursts, we get one scene after another of the two meeting up with the men who encourage and exploit them. They’re each barely 20 years old, and they discover that others want to use their dreams against them. Odile wants to sing, so she attracts sleazy types. Louis, haunted and inspired by the memory of his bicycle-racing champion father, wants to be loyal to someone, so he attracts wannabe big-shots who let him take the risks for them.

What makes this memorable is the way Modiano accomplishes his story so economically. The whole book is only a little more than 150 pages, but it takes us through their separate highs and lows, introduces us to three or four of their would-be mentors, and still gives us a striking portrait of a Paris just reinventing itself after the war. And this isn’t just coldly quick. Some of the passages are deeply moving. Scenes where Louis spends time leafing through stacks of old magazines for glimpses of his father, or where Odile, humiliated by being fired from her singing job, invites further humiliation onto herself, really hit home. You get the persistent sense that these people, whom we meet in such short bursts, have rich lives beneath the surface we see.

Interestingly, we never get the end of the frame. [SPOILER] At the end, Louis decides to double-cross his final “patron,” and the two take off with a suitcase full of money, presumably the money they then used to purchase the remote home where they start the novel. It’s part of the minimalist approach that Modiano doesn’t spell that out, and it’s part of the tightness of the story that they seem to get away with it with so little difficulty or complication. Like Hemingway, but in a different tone and to a different effect, he gives us only scraps that stand in for the whole.

I do think there is something perhaps too modest here. This is heralded as a major novel by a Nobel laureate, yet it’s also a small work, one that doesn’t quite introduce us to a world-changing style. It’s just a beautiful and a subtle piece of work. So, just as I may have given this more attention for knowing Modiano’s reputation, I also think I might have demanded more of it for that same reason. I have another of his in the queue, and I’ll be curious to see how this style holds up.

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