‘The Black Notebook’ by Patrick Modiano (Review)

With posts on a couple of longer books to come at the start of October, I wanted something nice and quick for my final review of the month, and while browsing through the shelves, a section caught my eye.  I saw a couple of books by a certain author, two I’d never managed to get to, and when I decided to try one, it proved to be just the right book for my mood.  I immediately slipped back into a world of memories and nostalgia, thanks to a novel that is both short and decidedly bitter-sweet…

Patrick Modiano’s The Black Notebook (translated by Mark Polizzotti, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) begins (and why not?) with a man out for a walk, accompanied by memories of his youth:

One late Sunday afternoon in October, then, my footsteps had led me to that neighbourhood, which I would have avoided any other day of the week.  No, it wasn’t really a pilgrimage.  But Sundays, especially in the late afternoon, if you are alone, open a breach in time.  You need only slip into it.
pp.7/8 (MacLehose Press, 2016)

Looking back over the decades, which almost seem to disappear as he walks down the streets he used to know so well, Jean wonders what happened to all those he knew back then.

The focus of the novel is on a short period in his youth and his relationship with Dannie, a woman of mystery with many a secret, and we soon learn of her move to the Unic Hôtel, a shady place frequented by some even shadier figures.  As it turns out, our friend isn’t just relying on his memory for all these details.  He’s frequently referring to his black notebook, in which he used to note down interesting details and snatches of conversation.  As he does so, a window on the past opens up, until we can almost see those he knew, faces behind glass…

The Black Notebook is typical Modiano, in every sense of the word, which is by no means a bad thing.  Readers new to his books might be frustrated by a lack of progress in whatever you might call ‘the plot’, with even the narrator providing a wry take on the futility of wanting to force the issue:

I was about to ask her why she felt accountable to him, but on second thoughts, it seemed pointless.  I believe that already, back then, I had understood that no-one ever answers questions. (pp.60/1)

However, those who have read and enjoyed his work before will simply surrender themselves to the atmosphere.  The book is just as much about Paris as our young friend Jean, and his strolls through the city streets, both now and then, take us back to a slower world, one best seen at walking pace.

For those who insist on a plot, at the centre of it all is Dannie (not her real name, of course), a young woman with a nervous air, always seeming to hold something back.  Her claims that the ne’er-do-wells at the Unic Hôtel are merely chance acquaintances is dubious, to say the least, and (very slowly) Jean gradually reveals what he’s learned over the years, gently drawing us towards the reason for her suspicious behaviour.

Of course, the novel is concerned less with this mystery than with Jean, and how all this affects him.  Time has erased many of the key locations in his story, but by walking the streets again, he can simply turn back time.  Despite never moving faster than a casual stroll, decades are travelled in seconds: we embark on metro journeys from the past to the future and see taxis suddenly overtaken by stagecoaches.  In a city like Paris, each generation is simply superimposed upon those that came before them – for someone like Jean, it’s easy enough to peel back those layers and revisit the past.

As in many Modiano books (e.g. So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, After the Circus), the narrator is merely a visitor to a slightly seedier part of his home city, a bystander or onlooker brushing shoulders with petty criminals, who have links to more hardened crooks.  These chance ties then lead to the police becoming interested in him, but there’s never a chance that he’ll be dragged into the affair, whatever that may be.  Instead, this merely provides the opportunity for them to tell him, and us, some eye-opening details, often showing Dannie in a new light.

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention the notebook itself.  Jean shares details he recorded there over the years, some of which only make sense much later on.  Part of Jean’s nature is an almost academic approach to his trips down memory lane, searching old telephone directories, poring over maps to find half-remembered locations and examining police files he obtains many years later:

I am concentrating, trying to endow them with some semblance of reality; I’m searching for something to bring them back to life before my eyes, something that might let me feel their presence after all this time.  I don’t know, perhaps a scent… (p.15)

Everything he learns goes into his little black book, as if by preserving these details, he’ll be able to understand the time better.

It’s all beautifully done, with excellent work done by Polizzotti, perhaps my favourite Modiano translator.  The writer has produced a book you could race through, but would prefer not to, and coming back to his work after a lengthy absence was a joy.  A meticulously constructed edifice of stories, memories and characters that seems as light as mist, The Black Notebook is a book about how past events that left a mark never really disappear – even if the powerful ending belies that idea somewhat.  After so many pages of calm, smiling reflection, there’s a sense that this too is merely a façade, and the final lines indicate the melancholy of dealing with lost time.  Events remembered, yes, but in truth unobtainable, and there’s nothing in the notebook that can help Jean deal with that sad fact…


3 thoughts on “‘The Black Notebook’ by Patrick Modiano (Review)

    1. Maria – In some ways, it really doesn’t matter as most of them are very similar in style and subject! This one is a very good one, and I also have a soft spot for ‘So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood’ (perhaps because it’s the only one I’ve read in French!). Another suggestion would be ‘Suspended Sentences’, which is actually a collection of three novellas, so it’s a nice way to ease yourself into the Modiano world 🙂


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