28 Paradises by Patrick Modiano and Dominique Zehrfuss
A few years ago, the David Zwirner gallery empire launched David Zwirner Books, a publishing imprint that would produce and distribute not only their exhibition catalogues but also the occasional book of archival and academic importance. The “ekphrasis” series has been the most exciting production of theirs to watch evolve: named after a term used for the literal description of a visual work, this series of pocket-sized paperbacks is meant to focus on important out-of-print or under-the-radar works of art criticism. They’ve published over ten titles so far, including a rambling manifesto by Paul Gauguin, a collection of letters between Rainer Maria Rilke and a young Balthus, and even a recent essay on contemporary art by Cesar Aira.
With the collaboration 28 Paradises by Patrick Modiano and his wife Dominique Zehrfuss, the ekphrasis series takes an exciting step away from the realm of the academic and historical towards a more humble space occupied by poetry and art that is outside the world of museums and markets. Composed of a short prose poem by Modiano and twenty-eight edenic little paintings by Zehrfuss, it’s an unassuming and thrilling work, a little treasure to be shelved among giants.
Translator Damion Searls’s introduction crashes through Zehrfuss and Modiano’s respective lives: Modiano won the Nobel Prize in 2014 and boasts a rich bibliography of novels, essays and collaborative projects. Zehrfuss was the daughter of worldly parents: her father was a renowned architect, a lover of Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, and fought in World War II with Charles de Gaulle. Her mother, a “beautiful Tunisian Jew,” had older men leaving their wives for her. Zehrfuss, in her memoir, recounts her dramatic childhood and the prevalent feeling of detachment that consumed her while she was growing up. Only when she met Modiano in the 1960s did she feel she could finally “turn into a human being.” They married in 1970 and have collaborated a handful of projects since.
First published in 2005, 28 Paradises is a delicate work about love and collaboration and the beautiful shift from dreaming of a partner to dreaming with a partner. But before we can really sink into Modiano’s poetry (which unfolds in fragments across twenty-eight pages), the first of Zehrfuss’s paintings takes hold. The work looks to be printed in its actual size, about three by eight inches (the book is read in landscape format), and depicts two figures, holding hands, on the edge of a pink lake. Birds of paradise soar nearby, okapi graze under a macaw-laden palm. Blue and green jungles tumble along the lake’s edges and the sky is the yellow of homemade cake frosting. A candied orange border surrounds the scene.
This transportive illustration is immediately at odds with the accompanying text. “I was in a small town,” the narrator begins. “At the edge of the countries named for the snow and the moon.” The narrator complains of empty squares and closed stations; the town is a bleak, lonesome place. “I arrived at the end of myself,” he declares.
Each page conjures a new escape, a new illustrated paradise that lands somewhere between a children’s book illustration and an outsider artist’s self-taught fantasies: each colored in a new muted rainbow, each with a couple, hand-in-hand, reveling in their dreams. The narrator envisions paradises: “The ibis and the alligator / The hummingbirds / Under the turquoise-colored sky.”
These flights are punctuated by short scenes of the narrator’s lonesome life silently lurking in cafes. Finally, he wanders into an antique store and finds twenty-eight miniature paintings stashed in a typically overlooked back room. He purchases the works, and disappears, lost in thought:
I looked at them one after the other
So hard that I entered every painting
Without knowing if I would ever return
To what we’re supposed to call
But it’s never been real to me
Although 28 Paradises is at times about retreating into one’s imagination, it moves swiftly from something sullen to something shimmeringly hopeful, a dream that some day the narrator might find someone with whom he can sit under a waterfall, dance atop a magnolia, or pick flowers on an island full of beasts. As the piece closes, he dreams of the painter, and all they might achieve together. “And I / Next to her / Wrote a poem.”