There's something so beguiling about the way the book begins. Jean B., a documentary film-maker, is on his way to Paris by train. He has a four-hour stopover in Milan. It is the middle of August, and the city is stifling, deserted. Jean seeks refuge in a cool, dark hotel bar near the station. While there, he learns that a pretty Frenchwoman killed herself in the hotel just two days before. Later, unnervingly, he realises that he used to know her when he was 20. Not long after returning to Paris, Jean goes missing from his own life. Instead of flying to Rio, he goes to ground in the Parisian suburbs and begins, in a dream-like, desultory way, to piece together the life of Ingrid Teyrsen, the woman who committed suicide. The man who has disappeared is investigating a disappearance. This slippery, atmospheric hall-of-mirrors effect is classic Modiano.
Jean finds out that Ingrid, 16 years old and a dancer, first went missing on a snowbound night in 1942, when she stayed out after the curfew. Instead of going home to her father, Ingrid met a well-connected but slightly down-at-heel young man, Rigaud, who took her in. They became lovers.
At some point, Ingrid and Rigaud fled occupied Paris. They crossed the demarcation line illegally and checked into a hotel on the Riviera, where they masqueraded as a couple on their honeymoon. This is France during the Occupation, a corrupt, louche and ambiguous world of shifting identities and hidden agendas. Though the young couple know the war is bound to end one day, they also realise that they have "to stay alive until then. Alive. And not attract attention. Be as inconspicuous as possible".
Modiano is a jackdaw when it comes to genre. He steals from the spy novel and detective fiction - film noir too - but what interests him in the end is the gaps in people's lives, the bits that can never be accounted for. Jean B. is doing what Modiano is, trying to imagine or recreate a world that obsesses him, but he knows the task will defeat him. The past is like mercury - it slips between your fingers – and Modiano's style is so understated that his words seem only lightly attached to the page, almost not there at all, which replicates the near impossibility of what is being attempted.
'Honeymoon' is a quest, a conundrum and a lament, but above all, perhaps, it is a meditation on the seductions and pitfalls of memory. Modiano conjures up a world so delicate and elliptical, so fraught with uncertainty, that Jean's fleeting, poignant description of Ingrid Teyrsen linking her arm through his on a hot blue afternoon in the 1960s may be all there is to hold on to.
Rupert Thomson's 'This Party's Got To Stop' is published in paperback by Granta this weekReuse content