Patrick Modiano and his paper ghosts

By Denis Cosnard

Posted today at 12:24 a.m., updated at 2:45 p.m.

Curious, very curious Michel de Gama. “And first of all, was his name really Michel de Gama?” “, asks the narrator of Chevreuse, Patrick Modiano’s last novel, his thirtieth, published in October by Gallimard. This Gama, who claims to be from the family of Vasco da Gama, is one of the main villains of the book. In the last pages, the author provides two or three elements on his character: Michel de Gama would actually be called Michel Degamat or Renato Gama, he would have been arrested in 1944 for various trafficking, and imprisoned.

Both his identity and his background, however, remain unclear. Nebulous. Of him and his companions do not subsist “Only half-erased traces”, writes Modiano. Enough to leave room for doubt. Jean Bosmans, the writer’s double in this book, is the first to wonder: did Gama and his ilk exist, or would they not be “Imaginary beings” ?

Master of chiaroscuro

A convict, with a floating identity, torn from oblivion to appear at the center of one of the best-selling novels of the year, with 98,000 copies sold in mid-December, according to the publisher. You are at Patrick Modiano’s. At the heart of his workshop. Nothing from a factory. The writer always writes his books the old-fashioned way, by hand, letting the blue or black pen run over large white sheets, then crossing out. A novel every two years, on average. Forty titles since Star Square, in 1968. The Nobel Prize awarded in 2014 has not changed anything. The Stockholm speech once delivered, tail tidy, Modiano returned to his workbench, in his Parisian apartment, near the Luxembourg Gardens. A 76-year-old “individual entrepreneur” is his legal status.

This master of chiaroscuro has always left a blur over his characters. Are they real or totally fictitious? Good boys, scoundrels, a bit of both? At the time of the outcome, readers often remain in doubt, and the author, during his rare interviews with the press, hardly helps them. “Between real life and fiction” existent “Confused borders”, he rejoices in Chevreuse… Enough to encourage certain enthusiasts to track down the real people from whom the novels are inspired, to find the places it evokes.

Shortly after the award ceremony, on a visit to Paris with two other Swedish academics, Per Wästberg, chairman of the Nobel Committee and an admirer of the French writer, said: “We looked for the cafes he talks about in his novels. ” In the foreign press, certain articles indicate precisely how to follow in his footsteps across Paris. For Chevreuse, a tour in the archives of the police headquarters in Pré-Saint-Gervais (Seine-Saint-Denis), far from the valley of the same name to the south-west of Paris, allows you to see a little more clearly.

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Patrick Modiano and his paper ghosts