Such Fine Boys by Patrick Modiano

From the perspective of most readers of Anglo-American literature, French literature is another planet. There are many other planets. Never discount the mind’s insularity.

Many readers don’t want to break out of their shells and I don’t understand why. If anything, my reading is decentered. Any country, any era, doesn’t matter if it’s the best of its kind. Your head could be a Noah’s Ark of books! Two of each after their kind, or maybe three.

Such Fine Boys might be a good place to introduce yourself to Nobel Prize winner, slippery Patrick Modiano. It seems to be a kind of reminiscence of his prep school days, a distinguished subgenre. Most of the anecdotes or flash fiction-like stories are first-personed by “Patrick” but his friend Edmond is also credited with some tales.

If you’ve wondered what happened to all those kids you knew in high school, whom the haze of nostalgia has somehow rendered interesting or mysterious, or wondered about old teachers, then Such Fine Boys is for you.

We’re introduced to the school, Valvert, its location and terrain, always an important consideration in Modiano’s fiction. He invariably specifies addresses, mostly relating to Paris, and cites the routes his characters take to get from place to place. If a character takes a bus you are told which one. Curious, I once checked in his more ambitious work, Suspended Sentences, if a bus route was real and was impressed to discover there was such a route in Paris, which the writer had probably taken when he was growing up.

Getting into Modiano’s head, I’m guessing he’s the sort of person who has those dreams where you become lost and can’t find your way home. Or those where you must teach a class, take an exam or be at your desk but unaccountably can’t find it. Characters in Modiano sometimes lose their place. There’s one case in Such Fine Boys where the old childhood home of a character has been torn down.

One of my favorite stories is about schoolmate Christian Potier’s mother. Everything we learn about Christian’s family life seems to raise questions as it provokes surprise. Christian introduces his mother as a famous French actor who she resembles. He calls his mother by her first name. He has a separate studio apartment on a different floor of the building where he apparently lives a rather isolated life while his mother attends numerous parties. She doesn’t seem at all “maternal”. Later, we will meet Christian’s mother again, but not Christian, under very different circumstances. Fifteen or twenty years have passed, the usual interval before the narrator encounters a previous acquaintance in Modiano, and much has changed.

Incidents where the narrator accidentally runs into an old teacher or classmate, runs into an old memory really, are highlights of the book. The character, who retains some of the lineaments of times gone by, has undergone a metamorphosis. Time alters us, can ruin us as a natural process, as if we were decaying fruit. Or more precisely, it seems as if the characters that the narrator has known from his schooldays have been transformed, have become Proustian memorials of their former selves.

Time is the mystery story we are all in that never provides a solution, as if there were a crime, but no neat unmasking, only hints at one leading to yet more puzzles and wonderment. Characters undergo remarkable changes, and sometimes they disappear altogether, taking part of our history and our emotions with them.

If any of the above draws you out of yourself, I hope you will consider reading Such Fine Boys. I’m guessing it’s the most accessible work of Patrick Modiano’s to start with. You might go for broke and read Suspended Sentences as well. They are fine additions to my Noah’s Ark of books, keepsakes in my soul if I have one.