Oddly, I picked up two French novels right at the same time. One in book form, the other on CD. One a best-seller in France and many other countries and the other by Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014.
Both left me with a profound feeling of quelle le fuc? And made me long for the works of Dumas, Voltaire, Sartre and Camus, among other French novelists who knew how to tell a story and make you care.
Let’s start with “Paris Nocturne,” a 2003 Modiano novel just out in English translation—probably because he won the Nobel last year—by Phoebe Weston-Evans. I picked it up because, yeah, it was short. I’m willing to invest the time into a 148-page novel by an author I have never heard of before, even if he is a Nobel Prize winner. I’m that devil-may-care.
Plus, I liked the cover.
The novel is compelling, though I had no idea what was going on. I think—actually, I hope—that’s the point of the novel.
“Nocturne” opens when the unnamed protagonist, a young man of about 18, receives minor injuries after being hit by a car. What follows is creepy and leads him to believe there are nefarious things going on. He is taken to what sounds like a makeshift hospital where he and the woman who hit him are sedated. When he wakes, she is gone (but he remembers her name) and he must sign a document taking full responsibility for the accident, after which he is given a big wad of cash and dumped onto the streets.
Our protagonist then begins searching for the woman to see whether she can clear up a few things, like, say what the hell just happened? Along the way he wonders whether the incident is wrapped up somehow in his father’s possibly shady past and a dog he had as a child and some new-age guru who holds meetings for his followers in coffee shops and seems to be regularly abused.
Modiano plays with time (sometimes the narrator is much older and at other times a boy) and memory (it’s often unclear whether the narrator is remembering or presenting a theory about what is happening to him). Or maybe it’s this: “I don’t know where I’d read,” the narrator says at one point, “that at certain hours of the night, you can slip into a parallel world: an empty apartment where the light wasn’t switched off, even a small dead-end street. It’s where you find objects lost long ago: A lucky charm, a letter, an umbrella, a key, and cats, dogs and horses that were lost over the course of your life.” Really? People lose horses? In France?
Still, the book is compelling enough to have kept me reading and, though the end wasn’t what I was expecting, it worked. Still, it’s a good thing it was short.
We now turn to “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. This novel, written in 2006, was a huge bestseller in France, has been translated into dozens of languages and been adapted into a film.
It sounds charming: Renee, an unattractive, self-taught philosopher who is a concierge at a high-end apartment building in Paris, hides her intelligence so as not to disrupt the stereotype people in her position have as dumpy, rude and too dumb to have a better job. Living in the building is 12-year-old Paloma. She, too, is of above average intelligence and she, too, hides it. Paloma is so disappointed with the world and the stupidity of others (especially adults) she intends to kill herself on her 13th birthday, unless, of course, she finds some true beauty somewhere.
These two characters are obviously destined to be friends, but they studiously avoid each other, because to have a friendship would reveal their carefully constructed facades. Their world is upended when a beautiful Asian man moves into the apartment building and sees these two geniuses for what they are.
Why’d I choose this? Cute title and, because it’s about 10 years old, I’d seen it on the library shelf for a while. I didn’t hate it, but it was not at all what I had expected.
First off, this book made me feel stupid. It started with the synopsis on the back: I had to look “autodidact.” (It sounds dirtier than it is.) Barbery, a philosophy professor, fills the book with ruminations by Renee on philosophy and with Paloma’s sneering at society and her messed up family. Both get old real quickly: Renee’s musings are confusing and Paloma’s are the rantings of an over-privileged brat. I felt little connection with any of the characters in this book and spent much of the time rolling my eyes at them.
And again, the ending. I could have seen it coming had I cared. But I just didn’t. The French have a word for it: ennui.