Enrique Vila-Matas on Modiano

[Unauthorized translation of “Modianesca” by Enrique Vila-Matas as published in El País]

He reminds me of the painter Hammeshøi who painted again and again empty rooms, all very different. I like it a lot that he is so obsessive and simulates writing always the same book. With Patrick Modiano everything happens in the past, which confirms to us that the past is not dead, and that it is not even past, and that it never ends happening. And the present? With Modiano the present is an impassive viewpoint, rather an imperturbable style.

All occurs in this past that will not stop to happen and where one can get lost easily while looking for at least a hint of its true identity. Nobody ignores the fact that there is not a single family in the world that, though it might go back four generations, does not pretend to be entitled to some unused title or some property of their ancestors. These are unlikely rights that flatter imagination. However –said Stevenson, cited by Modiano at the beginning of Remise de peine [Remission]– the rights of a person over their own past are still more precarious. It is precisely this precariousness the backbone of all of Modiano’s work: the work of someone who, though conscious of the precariousness of his rights over the past, investigates the uncertain light of his origins where everything collapses, where everything wavers… This makes him into a powerful and at the same time fragile artist, someone who moves on an endless foggy dock and who always turns on the void. For this reason we find ourselves spellbound at times without knowing at which point of the dock we are exactly. In all of his books, what makes us read on is the mystery of his style; while that which is dark appears to define itself slowly, which can produce moments of discouragement in our perception of what is happening; as if we drove a supercar parsimoniously and without any visibility and without knowing if we are at a cliff’s edge or on a highway. But this gives it all an uncertain and attractive touch, as if we walked on La Croix-Jarry alley [Wikipedia; Modiano, Un pedigree], this terrible place shown to him by his friend Queneau, one of his first patrons: a blind alley unknown to most Parisians, situated in the depths of the XIII district, between La Gare dock and the Austerlitz railways.

When I remembered this alley, I immediately remembered the day when we discussed with José Carlos Llop and other friends if reading Modiano was leftwing or rightwing.

–Monsieur Modiano –we finally approached him one morning in Paris–, you hardly talk about politics.

–Because it is dangerous for a writer. Politics is nothing but an awkward simplification of things. The writer works exactly the opposite way; he or she tries to show the hidden, the complexity.

When he had left, we imagined him returning to his La Croix-Jarry alley, to continue the search for the uncertain trace of light on his origins. And only then we discovered that he moved around a timeless Paris; that for him Paris had always been something interior, the horror and the compassion that cross through his stories, the void, the absence of the father, the enigma of the dubbed movies, the world of treason, Arletty’s voice, the infinite strangeness of midday light, love. And crying all night long in “Carrol’s” [cabaret in Remise de peine (?)], right?

SOURCE: Enrique Vila-Matas, El País, Oct. 10, 2014

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