Paris Nocturne: Patrick Modiano is Rediscovered

Paris Nocturne (2003/2015 in English)
By Patrick Modiano
Yale University Press, 148 pages

It’s amazing what a Nobel Prize can do. Patrick Modiano was a celebrated French writer before he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014, but his acclaim was among a small group of literati and was far from a household name. Since his Nobel, much of his earlier books have been translated into English, including Paris Nocturne, which appeared in English 12 years after it was published in France.

Modiano writes beautifully, though his prose is often spare. His work is also serious, literary, and interior. This is to say they are not books in which a lot happens. The concept of “mania” appears in most of his works, but it’s the sort of chaos and confusion that occurs in the mind more than in physical space. Modiano delves deeply into memory and the mania that comes from not knowing which memories can be trusted and which cannot.

Paris Nocturne is true to its title in that things occur in gloaming and in darkness. Our nameless 20-year-old narrator walks across the street at the Place des Pyramides in Paris and is grazed by a car. At first he thinks he’s fine, but the blood on his jacket and the pain in his ankle tells him he’s not. What happens next is a blur: a woman smashing her car into an arcade and staggering out, she beside him in a police van, a cup being placed over his nose, the smell of ether, several days of delirium, and awakening in a clinic where a man presses upon him a very large wad of cash.

While delirious he “remembers” being hit by a car under similar circumstances when he was a child. The woman in that memory looks like the one who recently hit him. She cannot possibly be, but he nonetheless is haunted by his impressions and has only the woman’s name, Jacqueline Beausargent, and the memory that her car was a sea green Fiat to go by. He was also told that the man who gave him the money is named Soliere and that, “he’s no choir boy.” Our narrator painstakingly sets about the task of tracking down Beausargent. Along the way, present memories and those from the past–being abandoned in childhood, a past love, school days–intersect, clash, and interweave.

Have I given away the book? No. It is not an adventure, a mystery, or an exploration of the Parisian underworld. It’s not really a narrative in any conventional sense. It is, as I suggested, about memory. Acts of remembering and forgetting are central to Modiano’s writing. He is deeply attuned to the French national memory and at attempts to reframe reality in the wake of two shameful French episodes: the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, and France’s attempt to maintain its colonialist grasp upon Algeria during its struggle for independence (1954-62). That conflict caused a quarter million casualties. Paris Nocturne isn’t about war or national shame per se, but Modiano suggests that what we choose to remember, think we recall, and conveniently forget springs forth from a national collective consciousness. We do not know when this story is set in time, but are we to infer that the narrator’s ruined ankle will exempt him from fighting in Algeria? Perhaps.

Paris Nocturne isn’t an “easy” read, even though it conforms to the short single-movement structure of its musical counterpart. Modiano’s writing brings to mind the work of others who employ untrustworthy narrators, such as Proust, Joyce, John Knowles, and Julian Barnes. Why read Modiano? First, because of the elegance of the language, which is powerful without resorting to complexity or frippery. Add to this his keen powers of observation. Recall that most of this book is set after dark. Modiano vividly describes Paris in the shadows. Plato remarked, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of light.” Did Modiano intend for us to muse upon this through a narrator who is neither child nor adult? I’m not sure. All I can say is that I read Patrick Modiano because he makes me ponder such things.

Rob Weir

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