In September last year the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2014 was announced, Patrick Modiano was awarded the Prize “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destines and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”. With a very limited oeuvre translated into English, there was a flurry of activity in October, November as publishers scrambled to get English translations onto the shelves for the latest Nobel Laureate. Personally I avoided any early translated works, thinking speed may have triumphed over quality of production, however I didn’t think it would take me twelve months to read my first Modiano work.
“Little Jewel” opens with our first person narrator, Little Jewel, catching a glimpse of a yellow raincoat, whilst walking to the Metro train station, suddenly memories of her mother are evoked, in actual fact this woman in the yellow raincoat could be her mother, Little Jewel was told she had died whilst travelling in Morocco but there is no way of verifying this, so she decides to follow this woman, who appears so similar to Little Jewel’s memories and photographs, she follows her train journey, off the train and then to a phone-box:
In the phone box, she kept talking. She seemed to engrossed in the conversation that I drew nearer without her noticing me. I even pretended to be waiting for my turn to use the telephone. I thought I might catch a few words that would help me understand better what this woman in the yellow coat and slipper socks had become. But I couldn’t hear a thing through the glass. Perhaps she was calling one of the people in the address book, the only one she hadn’t lost contact with, or who hadn’t died. Often, there’s someone who remains a constant presence in your life, someone you can’t ever shake off, someone who got to know you in the good times but is still there beside you when you’re down and out, still supportive, the last true believer, with the blind faith of a simpleton. A no-hoper like you. A devoted friend. Forever the punching bag. I tried to imagine what this man or woman, at the other end of the line might look like.
This is a haunting novel, with fragments of events, memories slowly coming into focus, tossed together with an imaginary future, a predicted better time. Little Jewel, is a loner, and the “someone who remains a constant presence” in her life is non-existent. Without an education, wandering from small job to small job to survive, living in an old hotel (where she previously spent some time with her mother), we follow Little Jewel through her Paris wanderings, and attempting to glean more information about her now assumed mother.
She meets a man in a bookshop, in the thriller section, at closing time and they agree to meet at a cafe at a later date:
‘What exactly are you looking for in life?’ He seemed apologetic about asking such an abstract and earnest question. He stared at me with his bright eyes. I noticed that they were blue-grey. He olaso had beautiful hands.
‘What am I looking for in life...’ I took a deep breath. I absolutely had to say something. Someone like him, who spoke twenty languages, would not have understood if I said nothing.
‘I’m looking for...a human connection...’
As you turn each page you learn more of Little Jewel’s life, her daily journey into her well of memories, her fears, all of the anecdotes are a small piece in a jigsaw puzzle, slowly revealing a credible loner. At one stage she pays the mysterious woman in the yellow coat’s outstanding debt and the concierge releases a reminder letter about outstanding bills that has been held as security, she decides to deliver it in person :
I placed the envelope on the doormat. Then I scuttled down the stairs. At each landing, I felt lighter, as if I had dodged danger. In the courtyard, I was surprised to be able to breathe again. What a relief to be able to walk on firm ground, the security of the pavement...Just now, in front of that door, it would only have been a matter of a gesture, a step, and I would have been sucked down into the slime.
As the mist slowly rises from our character study, we learn about her childhood without affection, the fragments allow you to start to see a focused picture.
This is a mystical work, a blurry journey into the fears and unstable mind of a young girl who has been abandoned by her own mother, a person who has moulded into an immature adult, with no “human connection”, a girl who is screaming silently to simply be acknowledged to be held. The Nobel Prize press release, although amazingly short, captures the mood of this work, “the art of memory with which he (Modiano) has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies”.
A short book, that can easily be read in a single sitting, and given the mood it creates it is probably advisable to do such. This is another novel in translation that uses elusive memories and nostalgia to reveal an identity. An original voice and a decent introduction to Modiano’s work.
Copy courtesy of Text Publishing.