A sense of Modiano Déjà vu. Of course. Déjà vu
The Black Notebook is set of course in Paris. Paris becomes far more of a stable character with some kind of – if not quite fixed identity– at least more graspable in place and time than the characters we follow in The Black Notebook, a short novella. This is beautifully written of course, and like some swimmy, impressionistic symphony of melancholy. A dusk of greys and blues, slowly growing darker.
The central narrator is a young man, Jean (very similar to the central character of After the Circus, also named Jean) This young man (like that one) begins a curious obsession and relationship with a mysterious slightly older woman. Dannie (like Gisele in After the Circus) is not who she seems. In fact she turns out to have a plethora of aliases, and a series of shadowy connections amongst a group of people who may be, or are, known criminals, political agitators, or both. The shadowy connections Dannie has are under surveillance by the police, and Jean himself is of interest to the police because of his associations with Dannie and the others. And the evasive Dannie herself, dropping veiled hints, clues, is of particular interest to the policeman who figures in these pages. The time is the early 60’s (and the present) and the powers that be are keeping a watchful eye on those of Algerian, Moroccan, connections
The Black Notebook of the title is Jean’s. He carries this around with him, and constantly notes down all kinds of things, the names of streets, appointments, names, stray sentences, things he sees. This is remarkably unsettling for the reader, who is swiftly in the uneasy, watchful territory which is Modiano’s oeuvre. We read on eggshells, waiting for some uncomfortable revelation – and yet there’s a flavour of anticipation and pleasure in not knowing anything. It’s an intensely Romantic – ‘half-in-love-with-easeful-death’ kind of world, as well as an unsettling one. Who is Jean? Who are these mysterious people, Dannie and the others?. Are they (any of them) who they appear to be? What is this notebook? Is Jean himself a police informer? All this will of course (well, some of this, of course) will be revealed as the book progresses.
Since my youth – and even my childhood – I had done nothing but walk, always in the same streets, to the point where time had become transparent
Nothing, no one, not even place, stays the same – because walking side by side with Jean in the 60s, is Jean, 50 years later, reading his Black Notebook., walking the same streets, and aware of his earlier self, walking with memories, trying to find who he was, who he is, and to disentangle events from memories of events, and even from the memories of the memories.
It took me a little time to settle into the fact that I felt I was reading After The Circus again – this is part of the point, I think, this sense of dislocated time, far from linear, now-carries-then. Modiano doesn’t do anything as obvious as offer solutions, but he does make us experience the insecurity behind what we might think is the truth of here and now or of there and then.
I received this as a review copy from the publishers, via NetGalley, The translator is Mark Polizzotti, who seems to be ‘the’ translator of Modiano