The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano
A writer’s notebook becomes the key that unlocks memories of a love formed and lost in 1960s Paris.
In the aftermath of Algeria’s war of independence, Paris was a city rife with suspicion and barely suppressed violence. Amid this tension, Jean, a young writer adrift, met and fell for Dannie, an enigmatic woman fleeing a troubled past. A half century later, with his old black notebook as a guide, he retraces this fateful period in his life, recounting how, through Dannie, he became mixed up with a group of unsavory characters connected by a shadowy crime. Soon Jean, too, was a person of interest to the detective pursuing their case–a detective who would prove instrumental in revealing Dannie’s darkest secret. The Black Notebook bears all the hallmarks of this Nobel Prize–winning literary master’s unsettling and intensely atmospheric style, rendered in English by acclaimed translator Mark Polizzotti (Suspended Sentences). Once again, Modiano invites us into his unique world, a Paris infused with melancholy, uncertain danger, and the fading echoes of lost love.
From the Back Cover
“1960s Paris, a mysterious girl, a group of shady characters, danger . . . Modiano’s folklore is set out from the beginning . . . and sheer magic follows once more.” — Vogue
“The prose — elliptical, muted, eloquent — falls on the reader like an enchantment . . . No one is currently writing such beautiful tales of loss, melancholy, and remembrance.” —Independent
“Sublime . . . [A] magnificent novel that reawakens days long past, illuminating them with a dazzling light.” — Elle (France)
In the aftermath of Algeria’s war of independence, Paris was a city rife with suspicion and barely suppressed violence. Amid this tension, Jean, a young writer adrift, met and fell for Dannie, an enigmatic woman fleeing a troubled past. A half century later, with his old black notebook as a guide, he retraces this fateful period in his life, recounting how, through Dannie, he became mixed up with a group of unsavory characters connected by a shadowy crime. Soon Jean, too, was a person of interest to the detective pursuing their case — a detective who would prove instrumental in revealing Dannie’s darkest secret.
The Black Notebook bears all the hallmarks of this Nobel Prize–winning literary master’s unsettling and intensely atmospheric style. Once again, Patrick Modiano invites us into his unique world, a Paris infused with melancholy, uncertain danger, and the fading echoes of lost love.
“Never before has Modiano written a novel as lyrical as this . . . Both carefully wrought and superbly fluid, sustained by pure poetry.” — Le Monde
Patrick Modiano is the author of more than twenty novels, including several bestsellers. He has won the Prix Goncourt, the Grand Prix National des Lettres, and many other honors. In 2014 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He lives in Paris.
Mark Polizzotti has translated more than forty books from the French, including Modiano’s Suspended Sentences. He is director of the publications program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
About the Author
PATRICK MODIANO was born in 1945 in a suburb of Paris and grew up in various locations throughout France. In 1967, he published his first novel, La Place de l’étoile, to great acclaim. Since then, he has published over twenty novels—including the Goncourt Prize−winning Rue des boutiques obscures (translated as Missing Person), Dora Bruder, and Les Boulevards des ceintures(translated as Ring Roads)—as well as the memoir Un Pedigree and a children’s book, Catherine Certitude. He collaborated with Louis Malle on the screenplay for the film Lacombe Lucien. In 2014, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy cited “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation,” calling him “a Marcel Proust of our time.”
MARK POLIZZOTTI has translated more than forty books from the French, including Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences, and is director of the publications program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Thanks to Net Galley and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Mariner Books for providing me with a free ARC copy of this novel that I gladly reviewed.
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.
Kindle version: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B010R3862I/
Thanks for reading
Olga Núñez Miret