BOOK REVIEW / Hotel du lack: Honeymoon - Patrick Modiano, Tr. Barbara Wright: Harvill, pounds 13.99

Nick Caistor
Friday 18 September 1992 23:02

JEAN B is a successful explorer and documentary film-maker, who after 20 years roaming the world feels there is nothing left to explore. So one morning, instead of embarking on yet another trip to the jungles of Brazil, he hops planes, abandons wife and friends, and ends up in a cheap hotel in one of Paris's lost suburbs.

In this hotel, he devotes his energies to following the traces of a woman he met briefly more than 25 years before. During the few hours spent with her and her husband on the Cote d'Azur he had been haunted by her lost gaze, by the overwhelming sense he had of life having drained from her, leaving her totally empty and lost. Then a few years later he had learnt by chance that she had committed suicide. Now Jean tries to climb back through time and distance to find the reasons for her death, sensing that her story may also contain the secret of his own disenchantment with life.

He tracks her life back to the Second World War, and the time she spent with her father as Jewish refugees in Paris. He imagines her marriage and honeymoon on the same Cote d'Azur where he met her years later as being based on a betrayal of her father and her past. Somehow he feels her to be a kindred spirit, unable to shake off a sense of guilt that gradually erodes the meaning of her life. The closing lines of the brief novel fall like a heavy pall: 'Circumstances and settings are of no importance. One day this sense of emptiness and remorse submerges you. Then, like a tide, it ebbs and disappears. But in the end it returns in force, and she couldn't shake it off. Nor could I'

Patrick Modiano has been publishing regularly for more than 20 years. Early in his career, he won one of France's leading literary prizes, and has a devoted following there. Time and again in his novels, Modiano revisits this period of French history during the Second World War (he also wrote the screenplay for Louis Malle's film on French collaboration with the Nazis, Lacombe, Lucien), as if he sees in it not only a crucial moment when France betrayed itself, but also the root of his own generation's sense of disorientation and despair, an emptiness for which it finds it hard to come up with any convincing explanation.

At first, Modiano's use of this theme, in which the younger generation delved back into the secrets of the parental cupboards, seemed like the controlled use of material chosen for its intrinsic value. But as he returns over and again to the same claustrophobic world, composing seemingly endless variations on the same basic story, Modiano increasingly appears in the grip of an obsession. At times he reads like a strange cross between Anita Brookner and the Ancient Mariner, forever buttonholing the reader with his own brand of exquisite angst. More often, in Honeymoon as much as in his other 15 novels, his writing has the sparse strength and telling concentration of a Simenon, though with the crime and the sense of guilt pinned mysteriously on to the narrator himself.

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