The Black Notebook a Masterful Musing on Memory

Patrick Modiano
Mariner Press, 144 pages. Published in French. Translated by Mark Polizzotti.
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And yet, it was no dream. Sometimes I catch myself saying those words in the street, as if hearing someone else's voice. A toneless voice. Names come back to me, certain faces, certain details. No one left to talk with about it. One or two witnesses must still be alive. But they've probably forgotten the whole thing. And in the end, I wonder if there really were any witnesses.

Of all human traits, few are as marvelous or as unreliable as memory. To appreciate Patrick Modiano's The Black Notebook try this: find the box where you've squirreled away things you don't have the heart to toss. Find a notebook from a class you only vaguely recall taking and try to reconstruct the content based solely upon the notes you took. Now imagine you've not looked at those notes for fifty years. Do you recognize yourself in those notes, or is it "as if hearing someone else's voice?"

There are many books one reads because they are great stories, even if the prose is so-so; The Black Notebook is the opposite. It deals with the efforts of an aspirant writer straining to gaze at his own past through a gauzy curtain. He recalls his infatuation with–perhaps even love for–an intoxicating woman named "Dannie," if that was even her actual name. All he has to assist him as he sifts through a half-century's worth of memories is the namesake black notebook he kept. It's not a diary–more like a college notebook in which one furiously scribbles detail that might or might not be germane. Who, after all, knows what's important when one is lost in the moment? Our narrator, Jean, finds names and recalls faces–Paul, Aghamouri, Dulwelz, Gerárd–but who were these people, really? What do we know of those with whom we passed the time when we were in our student years? And who was "Georges?" Why can't he remember him at all? Why was the 30-year-old married Aghamouri never seen with his wife, and why was he always hanging out in the Montparnasse (Left Bank) student quarters of Paris?

Let's add another complicating factor: the Algerian crisis. You need know nothing more than this: the deep roots of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris lay in a 1954-62 war in which Algeria threw off French colonial rule, and left behind a large Muslim immigrant population that was neither fully French nor fully Algerian. (And left in Algeria were the pieds-noirs, French Catholics and Sephardic Jews.) Paris was akin to Saigon during the Vietnam War–a den of plotters, recruiters, and propagandists supporting either the insurgents or spying on them. What would a not-yet-twenty Jean understand of such intrigue? Looking back, it's likely that the crowd romantically dubbed the "Unic Hotel gang" might have contained unsavory, even dangerous people but, as Modiano writes, "No one is left to talk about it." Was Dannie among them? Jean's notebooks hint of her dark secret, but what was it? Did she love him, or was Jean just a pawn in a bigger game–a naïve pasty blinded by romance and an inflated sense of his own cleverness?

Modiano is a major writer, the winner of numerous awards including the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for literature. You should not read The Black Notebook for the story, but for its poetic prose and for what it teaches you about memory. It is sometimes called a stream of consciousness novel, but that's not quite right; it's more about how that stream disappears underground and meanders in ways unknown and unknowable. To risk a different analogy, The Black Notebook is a thousand-piece puzzle in which only about a third of the cutouts remain. The tone is dreamy and the action in interior–within Jean's mind. Literary critics label it "metafiction," but I prefer the term "intoxicating."

Rob Weir 

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