Patrick Modiano’s novels gaze through “the glass wall of our consciousness of history.”
In a French TV show from 1990, the forty-five-year-old Patrick Modiano wanders around a supermarket on the rue de Sèvres in Paris. He speaks to himself and to the cameraman as he moves through the aisles of food, then pauses in front of a dairy case. He’s looking for traces of the Pax movie theater that once stood in the same spot, trying to recall where the screen was. But nothing he remembers is quite right, and his sentences break up in midcourse, leaving only verbal gestures at a past no longer visible. His attempt to locate the screen amounts to a fool’s errand.
Like the writer in this video, the characters in Modiano’s fiction fail in their search for a lost past. His heroes are elusive, disappearing into the crowd, more comfortable listening than speaking their mind, and always aware of the futility of the hunt: their prey is forever receding. In The Black Notebook, translated with perfect pitch by Mark Polizzotti, a writer named Jean tries to fathom the life of a former girlfriend, Dannie, a woman with multiple pseudonyms and a mysterious bond with gangsters who lived in the Unic Hôtel, in the shadows of the Montparnasse train station. During their affair, the police question him about the criminal activities of the group, but he has no information to give them. In a quintessential scene, Jean stands on the sidewalk of his imagination and stares at the men through the glass window of their hotel lobby. He gazes into an impenetrable story, not for its decor or its nostalgic atmosphere, but for the pull history exerts on the present: “Perhaps the glass was opaque from 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 that hotel lobby, and we no longer lived, they and I, in the same space and time.” Modiano’s books are full of moments like this; they transmit something deep and essential we’re forced to reckon with, the glass wall of our consciousness of history.
Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, likes to say that because he was born in 1945, he is a child of the war: “Faced with the silence of our parents we worked it all out as if we had lived it ourselves.” His father, Albert Modiano, was a man whose life was shrouded in moral ambiguities. Born in 1912 to a Sephardic family who came to France by way of Italy, Greece, and Egypt, he spent the war years hiding in Paris under a pseudonym and trading on the black market with unsavory colleagues. Despite several close calls and one arrest, Albert escaped the roundups of Jews that resulted in seventy-six thousand deportations. His son has spent a lifetime trying to fathom the combination of wit and accommodation that allowed his father to emerge from those years unscathed.
Modiano’s mother, Luisa Colpeyn, arrived in Paris during the occupation to work in the Nazi-administered Continental film-production company. After her children were born, she was often absent, on tour with a theater company or on a movie shoot. At first, Patrick and his brother Rudy were left in the care of their Flemish-speaking maternal grandmother. Later, they were sent from one unofficial foster home to another, in Biarritz, then in a suburb of Paris. They spent little time with either parent. Rudy died at age ten of leukemia, in 1957, leaving Patrick without a companion to face a lonely existence. By the sixties, his parents had divorced. When he wasn’t at boarding school, “home” became his father’s place on the Quai de Conti, looking out over the Seine—an apartment where, in his fictions, night-lit tourist boats cast shadows on the bedroom wall. At this address, one of the most glamorous in Paris, his estranged parents lived on separate floors, incommunicado. In Pedigree, his memoir, he explains that he grew up in “splendid poverty.” The settings were always luxurious, but there was never any money.
Of his two parents, Modiano’s mother may have done more for his literary career. We know from Pedigree that the novelist Jean Cau, Sartre’s one-time secretary, was an intimate friend of Luisa Colpeyn and brought Modiano’s eccentric first novel, La Place de l’Etoile, to the attention of its publisher, Éditions Gallimard. The novelist and poet Raymond Queneau, another friend of his mother, tutored him in geometry. Queneau and André Malraux were witnesses at his wedding. Modiano’s success as a novelist was immediate and steady, a new novel every year or two and a series of prestigious prizes: the Roger Nimier Prize for his first novel in 1968; the Prix de l’Académie Française in 1972; the Goncourt in 1978. He also composed songs for the pop-music star Françoise Hardy and coauthored the screenplay for Louis Malle’s classic film Lacombe, Lucien. He even wrote his mother a role in an episode of a TV series starring Simone Signoret. His mother seems to have shown him the way to a world of literature and entertainment, while his father introduced him to gangsters and shysters, an army of characters ready for fiction. In a cruel way, it was the perfect childhood for a writer.
For the French, the romance with Modiano has been a long, slow ride, unfolding over the course of some thirty novels. From the beginning, he has worked his own beat, obsessed with the mysterious world of his parents and indifferent to the experimental New Novels that were in fashion when he began his career.
His fiction portrays a very specific time, the “thirty glorious years” that marked the rapid French modernization and affluence, beginning with the Liberation in 1946 and continuing through 1968, the year Modiano entered the literary scene. Yet there’s nothing obviously sociological about Modiano’s fiction. The detritus of prosperity—abandoned garages, shuttered windows, condemned buildings—fills his stories. Each novel explores a different Paris neighborhood, granting individual streets their specific affect. In Dora Bruder, the poorest Jewish neighborhoods of the eighteenth district define the life of a girl about to be deported; in A Trace of Malice, a man who has lost his French identity wanders with the tourists around the Louvre and the rue de Rivoli; in La Place de l’Etoile, Suspended Sentences, and Pedigree, the mere evocation of the rue Lauriston, once the headquarters of the French gestapo, is enough to signal France’s collaborationist past. Every shameful act, every unresolved event, better forgotten, finds its embodiment in a unique space.
The Black Notebook, too, is branded by environment. Dannie and her friends, much too old to be students, live first in the Moroccan and American pavilions at the Cité Universitaire. These grand dormitories housed foreign students, including many who arrived in Paris from the former colonies. Later, Dannie decamps to the Unic Hôtel, another real place whose c instead of que marks its shabby modernity. When he tries to recall his walks with Dannie, Jean remembers streets with ghoulish names, like La Tombe Issoire where characters go to hide “in the shadow of a railway station and a graveyard,” and where, in his dreams, it is always raining.
On the surface, The Black Notebook resembles a police procedural, but its relationship to the past is more complex, since Jean is a literary dreamer whose time is never linear. The novel telescopes back to the mid-nineteenth century, settles temporarily in the 1960s, and flashes forward to Jean at his writing desk in contemporary Paris. Jean imagines he can escort one of the characters from the Unic Hôtel into the present, and wants to lend him a cell phone to help him out of a jam. Dannie is at the center of the story, but he can’t help wondering if his adventures with her were only a dream. The only proof is a black notebook he kept during their love affair, full of names, addresses, and phone numbers.
This notebook gives the novel its shape: Jean calls phone numbers that no longer exist. He travels to the addresses in the notebook and watches streetlights and lampposts, which he believes are sending “signals from the avenues or street corners.” His search is both revealing and opaque: “It was the same feeling you get from staring at a lit window: the feeling of both presence and absence. Behind the glass pane the room is empty, but someone has left the light on.” As the novel progresses, there are hints that the characters’ secret lives may soon be revealed, and the mystery of Dannie’s milieu resolved. One of the residents of the Unic Hôtel, a man named Aghamouri, is being used—by whom we don’t know—“to trap a Moroccan who often comes to Paris.” The Moroccan goes unnamed, but anyone who lived in France in the sixties will recognize the allusion to the Ben Barka affair: in October 1965, Mehdi Ben Barka, a leader of the Moroccan left, was abducted as he left the Brasserie Lipp in Saint Germain des Près. His body was never recovered, the guilty party never charged. It’s an open question whether or not the French police cooperated in King Hassan II’s plot to kill him. De Gaulle denied French involvement, even though Ben Barka’s abductors wore French police uniforms.
Modiano had already referred to the Ben Barka affair in Pedigree, in which he describes a man named Jean Duval, alias Jean Normand, who lived in a spare attic room in the same apartment building as Modiano’s parents. Among his parents’ motley crew of friends, Jean Duval was one of his favorites. Later he learned that Duval was labeled in newspaper articles about the Ben Barka affair as “the tall man with the Jaguar.”
In The Black Notebook, Modiano complicates Jean’s sense of time by introducing several figures from nineteenth-century literary history. Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s mistress, appears in a bookstore, then disappears down a street. A pattern is hiding in plain sight: between the novel’s narrator Jean, the fact that Modiano’s middle name is Jean, Jean Duval aka Jean Normand, and Jeanne Duval, Modiano plays with our eagerness to find real people in our fictional characters. But he’s not a historical novelist in any ordinary sense; he doesn’t seek to reconstruct the past. Rather, he’s interested in what remains after we’ve forgotten, in the little slips of memory and connection, the vague reminiscences, all of which hang on a detail, a proper name, an address, the glimpse of a face. In a society overwhelmed with information and unable to keep track of facts, these haunting particulars can represent a truer form of realism than fulsome reconstructions of everyday life.
There’s a book waiting to be written about Modiano’s relationship to the archives, which, along with walks through the city, are the tangible medium he uses to communicate with the past. True to form, Modiano stages a rendezvous with paperwork near the end of The Black Notebook, when Jean meets up with the police inspector who once interviewed him about the Unic Hôtel gang. Now retired, Inspector Langlais hands the writer a file of old intelligence reports about the people at the Unic, and about a crime committed by Dannie. One of Dannie’s pseudonyms, Jean learns, was Mireille Sampierry: another actual historical figure. The real Sampierry—actually Sampieri—was the mistress of one of the leaders of the rue Lauriston gang, the “French gestapo” who appear and reappear in Modiano’s novels. The name conjures suspicions that Dannie was tied to the darkest hours of the Nazi occupation, as well as privy to the Ben Barka assassination. But if Langlais’s files illuminate Dannie’s crimes, Jean doesn’t let on to the reader. Still, a baton has been passed. The same techniques the writer uses to describe the hidden crimes of Vichy work just as well to explore this other, postcolonial past. The novel is populated by the same kinds of hints, the same information withheld, the same ambiguity of power.
Modiano is loath to say much about his sources, but in an October 2007 interview in Les Inrockuptibles, he explains how heavily the Algerian War has weighed on him over the years, and how he watched the French involvement escalate, determined to desert if he were drafted into the army. He remembers how the odor of that war pervaded certain neighborhoods—the Porte de Clignancourt or the Place d’Italie, where you could also feel the presence of secret police. The Black Notebook makes that presence palpable.
The novel ends with the memory of a manuscript that Jean, the fledgling writer, left in a country house after a weekend with Dannie; she tells him it’s too dangerous to go back and fetch it. What connection to the real house, south of Paris, where Ben Barka was murdered? Is Dannie’s friend “Georges B.” the same man as Georges Boucheseich, a former member of the French gestapo who owned the house? Modiano doesn’t delve into the facts of the case. He locates the fictional country house far from the real spot, in a place called “Feuilleuse.” In Feuilleuse there is feuille: a sheet, a leaf of paper. His aim is never to explain away a charged moment in history, but rather to stay true to the opacity of the past. All of his literature participates in the same process of historical detail and blur, lamplight and shadow.
The Black Notebook ends in loss and abandonment. Dannie leaves Jean, and all that remains is his black notebook, containing the scattered notes, addresses, and phone numbers that will enable him to rewrite the manuscript he lost—the novel we are reading. Then comes the lassitude that gives Modiano novels their quietly desperate aura. In the end, Jean knows Dannie’s real name, and if he wanted he could probably find the street where she lives. But he knows he won’t. As I read the last sentence of the novel, I couldn’t help thinking about the author at work, nearing his seventh decade with nearly forty books to his name, and still loyal to the fool’s errand, leading his protagonists to another glass window, another sheaf of papers. The search persists even as the drive for discovery is deferred to the next book: “But every day the hours grow shorter, and every day I tell myself it will be for another time.”
Alice Kaplan is the author of Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic.