The Black Notebook: Patrick Modiano

Once again Patrick Modiano plays with the themes of time and memory in his book The Black Notebook. In this novel, a writer named Jean looks back on his past–partly by wandering over old familiar Paris turf and partly through thumbing through his black notebook and a report handed to him by a former police inspector. Once again there are embedded signs of France’s colonial past, and once again, the narrator recalls a brush with the criminal world.

And of course, there has to be a woman…

The woman in this case is Dannie, well, at least that’s the name she gave Jean. She has disappeared–literally and figuratively, and although the black notebook recalls some details of the narrator’s relationship with Dannie, now, years later, Jean finds himself asking questions he wished he’d asked at the time.

the-black-notebook

The Black Notebook is my fifth Modiano novel to date. Young Once is the story of an ex-soldier who gets mixed up with a criminal crowd, and After the Circus, which has a strange disembodied sense of placement in time, is the tale of an 18-year old who gets mixed up with a nomadic young woman. The words ‘tale’ and ‘story’ are to be used loosely with these Modiano novels, and both Young Once and After the Circus are not so much concerned with concrete plots–although free-floating plots exist in each book, but rather the concerns are memory and time. Through his characters, Modiano continually wrestles with these themes. Here for example is Jean mulling over the past through his notebook:

Among those masses of notes, some have stronger resonance than others. Especially when nothing disturbs the silence. The telephone stopped ringing long ago. And no one will knock at the door. They must think I’m dead. You are alone, concentrating, as if trying to capture Morse signal codes being sent from far away by an unknown correspondent. Naturally many signals are garbled, and no matter how hard you strain your ears they are lost forever. 

Walking around Paris, through old familiar locations in which he spent time with Dannie, Jean plays with the idea that he “would slip into a parallel time where no one could ever reach me.” Modiano forms the idea that time isn’t sequential as much as a series of parallel universes:

Yesterday, I was alone in the street and a veil fell away. No more past, no more present–time stood still.

This idea of time is also worked through Jean’s fascination with a handful of historical characters: Tristan Corbière, Jeanne Duval, and Baroness Blanche. At one point, Jean is so convinced that a woman in a bookshop is Jeanne Duval, that he follows her. Interestingly, however, a shady group of people all acquainted with Dannie, known only to Jean through a series of names, remain far less real than these historical characters who people Jean’s mind.

Of the five Modiano novels I’ve read so far, Villa Triste remains my unchallenged favourite, for its solid plot and tarnished glamour while Little Jewel is at the bottom of the pile. After reading 5 novels, there’s the sense that Modiano’s themes–wrestled with in each of those novels–are as much for his puzzlement as for ours. While, with the exception of Villa Triste, I can’t say I love Modiano novels, I am fascinated by his portrayal of time and memory. The events experienced by his characters are secondary to their interpretation–both at the time and now with decades of murky perspective.

Review copy

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

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9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Modiano Patrick

9 responses to “The Black Notebook: Patrick Modiano

  1. Excellent review Guy. The LRB of 22 September 2026 has a review of Modiano’s latest book So You Dont Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, with an overview of his work and his background. His father was a very dodgy character. Written by Adam Schatz.

  2. Great review but he’s still not appealing to me.

    Everytime I read about his novels, I think his characters are torturing themselves for nothing and that they’d better concentrate their energy on something else than fleeting memories and past things. Life goes on and passes by you if you’re too much focused on looking into the rearview mirror.

    • I’m giving him a break for a while. I still have another one to review. I agree, life goes on, but there’s the sense with the narrator (and apart from the fact that we know he’s a writer) that his life has been no great thing in all the years that have passed. There’s no family–no wife, no children, no friends.A bit like those people whose best years were when they were on the football team or the cheerleading squad in high school. Everything has been downhill since then.

  3. Whenever I read a review of a Modiano novel, I am reminded of Javier Marias, another writer with a very meditative/dreamlike style and a preoccupation with particular themes – in Marias’ case it’s often the keeping of secrets and what happens when that information is revealed. There are other recurring ideas and motifs too, particularly in relation to desire.

    I’m really glad to see that Villa Triste remains your unchallenged favourite as that’s the one I have in my TBR.

  4. Agree with Gert, that LRB piece is well worth a read, about Modiano’s career and themes and the prominent role his extremely dodgy father plays in his consciousness. Reminded me a lot of the dynamic Le Carré has with his own troublesome father.

    I also have Villa Triste on the shelf and am keen to get to it.

  5. I think I would like this one. Villa Triste is also my favourite. In my case it was also the first I read, which was a bit unfortunate.

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