Artizan Street library reading group discuss Patrick Modiano’s Night Watch

night watchThis time we had Nobel Prize-winner Patrick Modiano’s Night watch, one of his trilogy of novels set in Paris during the German occupation of World War II. A young Frenchman becomes a double agent, informing on a resistance cell for the French Gestapo, the whole story told in a first-person impressionistic collage of events.

What you need to know is that it isn’t as straightforward as that. Modiano, born 1945, is part Jewish and his father survived the occupation by black-market deals. The publication of his Occupation trilogy potentially breached the French taboo on discussing the extent and nastiness of collaboration and opened up a shameful family secret. It got worse when, in 1973, he co-wrote with Louis Malle the film Lacombe Lucien, putting the character of his young nazi agent on the big screen.

Tim hadn’t liked it, hadn’t been engaged by its structure, whereas Sara had loved the sinister atmosphere and Parisian ambience. Even the refrains of songs which pepper the text were so well chosen, like the song Swing troubadour, a Charles Trenet number involving the appropriation of an apartment – echoing the main character’s invasion of an abandoned family home.

What had struck Jenny and Malcolm was the style of the book, published in 1969, was ‘modernist’, as if it belonged to the period it described, a sort of retro-experiment. Sara called it ‘convulsive’. But, for Malcolm, it was a style which made the book, for all its relative brevity, seem too long. In fact, halfway through he had become convinced that we ought to be reading Jean Genet’s Thief’s journal instead, a real, eye-witness account of the period.

Wasn’t it, Tim wanted to know, all about the fragility of life? Sara thought, in particular, the fragility of being Jewish under the occupation. And did we know, the leaders of the Gestapo in the novel were based on real people, as was the location of their headquarters based on a real building? Rory had been struck by the amount of alcohol the Gestapo gang consumed. Maybe they were drinking to survive.

What was Modiano’s intention, Malcolm asked, in making the main character solicit sympathy from the reader even when comparing himself to notorious murderers of the period, like Petiot and Landru? Because what we observe is, frankly, a declaration of self-pity. So is Modiano aware of how inappropriate that is? Yes, Jenny thought he was. Very early on he has his character put into words his own recognition of that predicament: The tears will come. I’ll finally know the pleasures of ‘self-pity’ – as the English Jews call it. But really, that was the core issue of the character’s monologue, his bemoaning of the fact that he somehow ought to deserve sympathy – take his identification with the Princesse Lamballe, victim of the Paris mob during the Terror.

Maybe it’s meant to be his dad, Rory suggested. The character is a vehicle for Modiano to put words into his father’s mouth. Very likely. When the first of the three books was published, Modiano’s father was so upset by it he is reputed to have attempted to buy up all available copies in order to suppress it.

A major aesthetic issue for our group (according to Malcolm): was this a member of yet another genre which we had stumbled into: historical fictions of difficult times? We’ve had Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, Christa Wolff’s Cassandra, and now this. We’ll see.

Next time, something completely different, Lavie Tidhar’s weird pseudo-pulp Osama. We meet 6pm Monday 21 March at Artizan Street Library.

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