“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.
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.