Memory, fiction, writing and we’ll always have Paris

The Black Notebook - Patrick Modiano, Mark Polizzotti

Thanks to Net Galley and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Mariner Books for providing me a free ARC copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

This is the first of Patrick Modiano’s novels I read, so I can’t comment on its similarities or differences with the rest of his oeuvre or how well it fits in with his usual concerns.

The novel, translated into English by Mark Polizzotti, is a wander through his memories and the city of Paris by Jean, a writer who fifty years ago, when he was very young, kept a black notebook where he wrote all kinds of things: streets and people’s names, references to writers he admired and events he experienced, sentences people said, rumours, he recorded information about buildings that were about to disappear, dates, visits to places, locations…

The story can be read as a mystery novel, as there are clues referring to false identities, strange men who meet in underground hotels, breaking and entering, robberies and even a serious crime is hinted at. There’s a police interrogation and suggestions of political conspiracy/terrorism, as the original events take place shortly after Algeria’s War of Independence, and a few of the characters are Moroccan and have a reputation for being secretive and dangerous. There is also Dannie, a woman a few years older than Jean, who has a central role in all the intrigues, or at least that’s how it seemed to him at the time. What did he really feel for her? Is he revisiting a love story? Although it is possible to try a conventional reading of the novel, the joy of what French theorist Roland Barthes would call a readerly approach to it, is in making up your own meaning, in accompanying Jean in his walks not only around the real Paris, but also the Paris of his memory, those moments when he feels that he can almost recapture the past, through reading his notes, and relive the moment when he was knocking at a door, or observing outside of a café. Sometimes, more than recapturing the past he feels as if he could bridge the gap of time and go back: to recover a manuscript he forgot years ago, turn off a light that could give them away, or ask questions and clarifications about events he wasn’t aware of at the time.

The narration, in first person, puts the reader firmly inside of Jean’s head, observing and trying to make sense of the same clues he has access to, although in our case without the possible benefit of having lived the real events (if there is such a thing) at the time. But he insists he did not pay enough attention to things as they were happening, and acknowledges that often we can only evaluate the importance of events and people we come across in hindsight when we can revisit them with a different perspective.

The writing is beautiful, fluid, nostalgic, understated and intriguing at times. The book is also very short and it provides a good introduction to Modiano’s writing. But this is not a novel for readers who love the conventions and familiarity provided by specific genres and who want to know what to expect when they start reading, or those who like to have a clear plot and story, and need solid characters to connect with. Here, even the protagonist, Jean, remains a cypher or a stand-in for both, the reader and the writer.

I enjoyed the experience of reading this book, although as mentioned it is not a book for everyone. But, if you love Paris, enjoy a walk down memory lane, like books that make you work and think, have an open mind and are curious about Modiano’s work, I recommend it.