Patrick Modiano, Parisian Nobel laureate, began walking the streets of his home city in earnest when he was a teenager, absorbing the idiosyncrasies of districts such as Pigalle, memorising street names, mapping each contour with the determination of an ordnance surveyor.
There is something of the nocturnal and the feral about Modiano the novelist, as if Rue Fontaine, Rue Frochot and Rue O’Dessa spring to deathly life in the somnambulism of the city’s diminishing heart beat.
What is immediate to the senses with The Black Notebook is the distinct as turpentine smell and feel of Paris in a different time and a different place, long before social media annihilated blood and guts communication, an era suffused with the tones of film noir, more Jean Luc Godard than Francois Truffaut, where each line is as tactile as braille. His world is the monochromatic miasma of the quartiers from dusk on.
In The Black Notebook, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, a writer acts on impulse to search for a woman he loved four decades earlier after happening upon a set of names in his notebooks. Not lost in translation, thankfully, is Modiano’s trademark, mood, as time slides back and forth. A fog has more pace.
The notes mirror Modiano’s real life topographical fascination for the veins and arteries of Paris, without which a single page in The Black Notebook is bereft, and in which, to paraphrase another translator of Modiano’s fiction, Euan Cameron, a curious cast of the mysterious and the sinister appear and vanish from the narrative for no obvious reason.
Modiano was born in Occupied Paris in 1945, and published his first novel, La Place d’etoile when he was just 22. The Black Notebook is a fine example of the mesmerising fusion of the present and the past of Paris as a singular backdrop to an investigation played out on the border between dreams and reality. Forewarned is forearmed: you have to expect that Modiano can ramble, but the diversion is never entirely pointless, and the adjective-free prose sparkles, even in translation.
In The Black Notebook, the author Jean retraces his nocturnal footsteps in the 14th arrondissement, like a drunk who drinks again to retrace what he got up to the night before: around the left bank, in and out of cheap hotels and crepuscular cafes, stepping on and off the conveyor belt of rotating time, floating wraith-like through the fog of memory expecting to moor once again with an amorous blast from the past.
In Paysage, Baudelaire writes: ‘And when I glimpse an unsubstantial ghost/Crossing the teeming scene Parisian/I always feel this phantom from the past/Is gently going to crib again.’ This is the city of Modiano, ‘where the present no longer counted, with its indistinguishable days in their doleful light.’
The Black Notebook is one of a series of Modiano novels published by MacLehose Press, including In The Café of Lost Youth, where four narrators – a student, a private detective hired by an aggrieved husband, the heroine herself and one of her lovers – summon a reflection of Jacqueline Delanque, better known as Louki, whose life is one of aimless drifting.
Like The Black Notebook, ever present in In The Café of Lost Youth is Paris, anthropomorphized by Modiano’s sketches of the city which read as if directed by Jean Renoir in his La Regle du jeu heyday: solitary and lonely journeys on the last metro, late night walks along empty boulevards and cafes where the elderly sift through memories of their vanished adolescence, when the future was an orchard in blossom and promised so much. Shadow and light writing, but beautifully precise, leaving the reader with a feeling of both presence and absence.