The Occupation Trilogy

images.jpgWhen the Nobel committee announced that the literary prize was being awarded to Patrick Modiano I discovered that many of my well-read friends had never heard of the author. I myself had only read one of Modiano’s novels, and that one in French. Now I have read a half-dozen titles and am beginning to understand the author.

In a review of The Occupation Trilogy, the New York Times wrote:

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Oh Those Methods!

Joe Leaphorn leans back in his office chair and stares at the seemingly random colored pins adorning the map on the wall. Hercule Poirot charges up his little gray cells with a tisane and a swirl of his mustache. But the detective I most admire hulks around, watches, listens, applies his methods, and has an occasional ragoût at the local bistro. Yes, it is Jules Maigret, commissioner of the Paris “Brigade Criminelle” (commissaire – Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris).

MaigretGeorges Simenon is one of the most prolific writers in the world and there are plenty of Maigret novels and stories to enjoy, starting with Pietr-le-Letton (Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett). Over the years Maigret undergoes changes, both personal and professional, becoming more refined and expanding his team at the Brigade so that the later novels focus less on his personality and more on the narrative being developed. Of course, after 76 novels and dozens of short stories, Maigret’s methods are familiar to every reader and the experience might be considered more for the comfort of a familiar situation and not as much for the thrill of the chase. Besides, nowadays books and movies are so graphic and shocking that we might need to slow down and enjoy more old-fashioned pleasures. Maigret works for me.

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Aurelia Paris

The WarMarguerite Duras ends her memoirs of the aftermath to World War II with a story she wrote back then (subsequently revised) called Aurelia Paris. It’s very short but powerful. The scene is an apartment where a older woman has assumed the care of a young girl after the girl’s parents were taken by the German police. The woman sits outside the door with a pistol, expecting to kill the German police when they come and then turn the gun on the girl and herself to guarantee that they will not be captured.

At the same time, they are in the flightpath of the heavy bombers heading for Berlin and half-expect to be blown up every time they hear the roar of the planes’ engines. The girl is attuned to the sound of the planes and can report their positions across the map of Europe.

A simple story but, as I said, powerful.

The entire collection titled The War is a vivid recollection of the horrors and the intense human emotions that came with the war. A very important work and highly recommended.

What happens when nothing happens?

When I was younger I commonly played mental games when I was performing mindless acts like sitting and waiting or walking across town on crowded streets. One game was naughty:  I would observe ten women and then would pick the most intriguing or exotic or erotic. I could play this game for hours … it was similar to the standard automobile trip games of counting horses or finding the alphabet on roadside signs (in order, of course). Another game I played was totally within my head and involved perceived causality. I would consider the sidewalk, for instance, and envision the sweaty workers smoothing out the concrete that had been delivered by the big truck which had been filled at the concrete plant on the outskirts of town where the now-dry river once snaked between the cotton woods that I had first experienced in the mid-west when an apparent snowstorm in August was actually the cotton woods sending out there spores and I was walking in the park on the way to the zoo … ad infinitum.

You ever play mind games like these?

One of my favorite authors, Georges Perec, wrote a short piece called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. I absolutely recommend this work to all readers and writers. It’s not one of the more available pieces by Perec but if you need to read an English translation, Wakefield Press currently has it in print (reading it in French, however, is preferable). This is what is posted on the back cover of the Wakefield edition translated by Marc Lowenthal:

One overcast weekend in October 1974, Georges Perec set out in quest of the “infraordinary”:  the humdrum, the nonevent, the everyday—”what happens,” as he put it, “when nothing happens.” His choice of locale was Place Saint-Suplice where, ensconce behind first one café window, then another, he spent three days recording everything to pass through his field of vision:  the people walking by; the buses and driving-school cars caught in their routes; the pigeons moving suddenly en masse, as if in accordance to some mysterious command; the wedding (and then funeral) at the church in the center of the square; the signs, symbols, and slogans littering everything; and the darkness that eventually absorbs in all. In An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Perec compiled a melancholic, slightly eerie, and oddly touching document in which existence boils down to rhythm, writing turns into time, and the line between the empirical and the surreal grows surprisingly thin.