Miscellany — From the January 2017 issue

The Notes of Patrick Modiano

A young writer finds his voice on the radio

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“We’ve had a bit of a crisis,” Hughes de Courson told me on a raw Parisian morning last February. I’d found him slumped at a table overlooking the cobblestones of the Place Émile-Goudeau, trying to mollify his much younger girlfriend, Naomie Assana. Courson explained that they had spent the previous night drinking a fair amount of wine in Versailles, and this morning their hostess had asked them to leave, claiming they’d kept her up all night. Exhausted, they had returned to the city and checked into this modest hotel in Montmartre.

Courson, a sixty-nine-year-old with shoulder-length gray hair and an earring, exhibited the louche nonchalance one might expect of a decrepit rocker. A founding member of Malicorne, an electric folk band of the Seventies, he has enjoyed a long musical career that included performing Mozart in Morocco and rewriting the national anthem of Qatar. (“I gave them two versions,” he said, “one very Arabic, one very ‘God Save the Queen,’ and you can guess which one they chose.”) Our meeting, however, had less to do with his résumé than with his connection to literary history through his old songwriting partner, Patrick Modiano.

Patrick Modiano, c. 1972 © Louis Monier/Bridgeman Images

Patrick Modiano, c. 1972 © Louis Monier/Bridgeman Images

Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, is considered one of the foremost chroniclers of Paris during the Second World War, but he was barely known outside France before his victory in Stockholm. Even in his home country, Modiano remains an ill-defined figure, an awkward introvert who spends his days thumbing through telephone books from the Forties. Since the flurry of attention that followed his Nobel win, Modiano has rarely spoken to the press, and the interviews he does grant are hardly informative. On camera Modiano appears hesitant and shy; he stammers, waves his long arms, and trails off midsentence. So I was intrigued when I learned that as a young man, Modiano wrote song lyrics, some of which were recorded by Francoise Hardy and other stars of the Sixties. I was surprised by the pop ambitions of a future laureate, and it occurred to me that Modiano’s musical collaborators might prove a more fruitful way to access this elusive writer than traditional lines of inquiry.

An internet search revealed that in 1979 Modiano released a record entitled Fonds de tiroir 1967. Fonds de tiroir means “the bottom of the drawer,” and Modiano’s liner notes explain the offhand title he chose for songs he’d written more than a decade earlier:

Everything ends up in drawers. You just have to open them to find again the lost years, with the dried flowers, the yellowed photographs, and the songs. Someone has said that the best way to relive the passed moments are scents and songs. What are the scents of 1967? I don’t know, but in the meantime I found in the bottom of a drawer a few songs that Hughes de Courson and I wrote in this particular year.

At the hotel in Montmartre, Assana retreated upstairs to nurse a headache, but Courson persevered in the lobby with me. Too distracted for a sit-down interview, he offered a walking tour of his old neighborhood instead. We took the metro south to the Latin Quarter and strolled down the Left Bank, where the booksellers on the Quai des Grands Augustins reminded Courson of a memory from his school days.

“Patrick would always offer the sellers three books,” he said, “and he’d place the book with a forged signature of the author in the middle, as if he didn’t know that he had something precious.” Without a word about the valuable autograph, the bookseller would hastily close the deal, believing he was taking advantage of a distracted young man. But it was the opposite. “With Patrick,” said Courson, “everything is camouflage.”

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