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. Read More