Fiction – hardcover; MacLehose Press; 160 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti.
This is my third review of Patrick Modiano’s work this year, for which I make no apologies. He’s fast becoming a new favourite writer.
The Black Notebook, first published in the French language as L’herbe des nuits in 2012, bears striking similarities to an earlier 1992 novel, After the Circus, which was the first Modiano book I had ever read and reviewed.
In that novel, the narrator, Jean, reveals that as an 18-year-old he was interrogated by police about a man and a woman he claimed not to know. He also tells us about a woman named Gisèle who he met and fell in love with, but she had many closely guarded secrets and lured him into a world beset by dangerous unseen forces.
In The Black Notebook, the narrator, who is also called Jean (although whether it’s the same Jean isn’t made clear and probably isn’t important), explains that about 20 years earlier he was interrogated by police about his involvement with a woman called Dannie, who had a dubious past and was wanted for a homicide committed three months before they met.
His relationship with her years earlier had unwittingly drawn him into a world of dangerous men where the threat of violence ran like an undercurrent beneath their loose acquaintanceships. He had never truly known who they were or what they did, but he would meet them at the Unic Hôtel, the Cité Universitaire cafeteria or empty cafés for drinks and conversation.
Exploring the streets of Paris
Fast forward 40 years and Jean is now a middle-aged man and a successful writer. He acts like a flâneur, wandering the streets of the Montparnasse district of Paris, but he has a goal in mind. Using his notebook from his youth as an aide–mémoire, he wants to piece together clues about who Dannie was, what crime she had committed and how he truly felt about her.
The notebook includes “as many small details as possible concerning this short, turbulent period of my life” but often lacks context or explanation. It’s all snippets of information to jog the memory, which he describes as akin to a train rushing by
… too fast for you to read the name of the town. And so, with your forehead pressed against the window, you note down other details: a passing river, the village bell tower, a black cow ruminating beneath a tree, removed from the herd. You hope that at the next station, you’ll be able to read the name and find out what region you’re in.
The narrative, told in a simple, straightforward style, explores notions of memory and time — “For me, there has never been a present or a past” — and seamlessly blends Jean’s recollections of the past with his present experiences.
Through the looking glass
There are recurring motifs — a red car, a camel-coloured overcoat, a black briefcase, various train station platforms and lights left on in rooms — throughout the text, while multiple references to glass — in windows, mirrors, windscreens and even aquariums — are used as a metaphor for a barrier, a place to look at the world but remain separate from it.
This is how he describes seeing the gang of men, for instance, as he stands on the pavement and watches them through the hotel window:
They were only a few centimetres from me behind the window, and the second one, with his moonlike face and hard eyes, didn’t notice me either. Perhaps the glass was opaque from the inside, like a one-way mirror. Or else, very simply, dozens and dozens of years stood between us: they remained frozen in the past, in the middle of the hotel foyer, and we no longer lived, they and I, in the same space of time.
Towards the end of Jean’s stroll, he runs into Langlais, the police officer, now retired, who interrogated him all those years ago, and they sit in a cafe and enjoy a coffee together. And that’s when Langlais offers to share the case file he filched as a “souvenir” of his retirement and which offers up most of the answers Jean has been looking for.
The Black Notebook is a thrilling and tense read, but it’s also a hypnotic one.
Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014 and has more than 40 books to his name.