‘Honeymoon’ by Patrick Modiano is an evocative, melancholic tale, and, at times, it resembles a frame from “film noir” of the 1950s. Modiano presents the lives of the protagonists from the point of an observer, never depicting the reality in a straightforward manner, but rather showing different angles, playing with the memory, the passage of time and changeability of place we used know. The reader must remain focused and to reflect on the past, presence and future to appreciate the full artistry and emotional sensitivity of Modiano’s writing.
Throughout the reading of Modiano novel, I felt a strong connection with the protagonists of ‘Honeymoon’, Jean B and Ingrid. There is a veil of nostalgia that prevails which causes a very compelling feeling for the reader.
‘Honeymoon’ is one of my favourite books by the French writer, but it is not a fast-paced novel with the plot to get everyone excited. It is a very nuanced and sublime writing which requires from the reader to take a moment to analyse his own surroundings and the fleetness of time; an the ability to dig out feeling of sensitivity for the ordinariness of another human life.
Jean B, the main protagonist of ‘Honeymoon’, is a documentary filmmaker and explorer. Escaping from his life in Paris, Jean seeks refuge in Milan one hot summer in August. While in Italy, he learns that a French woman took her own life in the hotel in Milan and he realises that he knew the woman in question whose name was Ingrid Teyrsen.
Jean B met her and her husband when he was in his early 20s during the last months of World War II. Jean B decides to detach [to go missing himself] from his own life and to search for the answers about Ingrid’s life and the motives behind her suicide.
Jean B notes:
” What a strange idea to come and commit suicide here, when friends are waiting for you in Capri. . . What caused her to do it I might never know.”
It is the beginning for Jean B of drifting in and out of his own past and memories, as well as, of the others, Ingrid and her husband. His memory takes him back to the times when he met the couple in the hotel on the French Riviera when they sought refuge during the war. Jean B follows their steps and rents the flat in Paris where the couple used to live in the years following the war. He recalls the second occasion when he met Ingrid by chance in Paris, years after the war ended when she appeared to look exhausted by life experiences and was a very different to Ingrid, he had met decades earlier. Jean B expresses below the feelings related to that encounter :
“It does also happen that one evening, because of someone’s attentive gaze, you feel a need to communicate to them not your experience, but quite simply some of the various details connected by an invisible thread, a thread which is in danger of breaking and which is called the course of a life.”
As the story progresses, Jean B becomes more familiar with the life of Ingrid during World War II in the occupied Paris. Sixteen-year-old Ingrid meets and falls in love with Rigaud who helps her survive. They both travel to the Cote d’Azur and pretend they are the newlyweds on their honeymoon. And this is the time when Jean B also enters their lives.
We accompany Jean B as he uncovers further parts of Ingrid’s history; her father was an Austrian Jewish man and therefore she was half-Jewish. During the time of roundups of Jewish population, one evening Ingrid decides not to go back home and she walks on. She never sees her father again. We learn that Ingrid’s dad was taken away which meant a certain death during those times.
There is an additional layer of the complexity in the relationship between Ingrid and her father which was caused by the times they both lived in. Ingrid’s dad died without knowing what happened to his daughter as they never spoke again after Ingrid decided not to return home. The reader also learns of the anguish and unimaginable distress that Ingrid feels once she decides to go back home and finds out that her beloved parent was taken away.
The historical events and circumstances have an impact on individual’s lives even beyond their own lives as it shown here; the death of Ingrid impacted the life of our narrator with whom she and her husband crossed the paths.
Ingrid survived the war, but she did not survive the consequences of her memories. At the end of novel there is this haunting and compelling quote which refers to the life of Ingrid:
“Circumstances and settings are of no importance. One day this sense of emptiness and remorse submerges you. Then, like a tide, it ebbs and disappears. But in the end, it returns in force, and she couldn’t shake it off.”
Modiano’s novel is a mediation about life. It is the exploration of its meaning and its ordinariness, often marked by the circumstances that the individual has not chosen to be a part of; they were imposed on the individual life and one is forced to live with them. This is also a tale about the overwhelming feeling of emptiness related to the places we used to know, and which are no longer as we remember them:
“And now here I was arriving at the cinema, which had been turned into a shop. On the other side of the road, the hotel where Ingrid had lived with her father was no longer an hotel but a block like all the others. The café on the ground floor she had told me about no longer exists. One evening, she too had returned to this district, and for the first time she had felt a sense of emptiness.”
‘Honeymoon’ contains the essence of Modiano’s writing; it is dreamy, melancholic; it depicts an overbearing sense of loss and is a reflection of how we perceive the lives of the others who once entered our lives, even for a short time, and left an indelible mark on our life. Ultimately, it is a tale about memory and time which is the quintessence of Modiano’s artistry and his understanding of human condition.
I would recommend everyone to read this book as it had a huge impact on me. I might be biased as I always devour all the books by Modiano. I am also aware that this type of sensitivity he depicts in ‘Honeymoon’, as well as in his other books, is not shared, understood or appreciated by some. Nevertheless, I believe if you are an introverted soul who enjoys moments of silence and have an interest in an individual’s story, this little book will not disappoint you. I would also encourage everyone interested in Modiano’s writings to read more about the times of World War II in France and the Jewish population during those days as it is indispensable for understanding books such as ‘Honeymoon’.
Also, if you are interested in similar books, I would also refer you to Françoise Frenkel’s beautiful book: ‘No Place to Lay One’s Head’ where Patrick Modiano wrote a foreword. You can find a short summary and review of this book here.