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The Black Notebook and The Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, trans. Mark Polizzotti and Euan Cameron

Patrick Modiano's city is beautiful but antiquated

Jonathan Gibbs
Thursday 07 January 2016 17:59 GMT
Enchanting, but familiar: Patrick Modiano in Paris in 2004
Enchanting, but familiar: Patrick Modiano in Paris in 2004 (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

It's strange how much can change in a year. In October 2014 Patrick Modiano was lifted out of international obscurity courtesy of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and a whole swathe of readers were introduced to his obsessive, evocative fictions of a lost Paris, full of ghosts and memories. Do these books – so many of them, and all so weirdly similar – read differently in the wake of the Paris attacks in January and November?

Perhaps, but it's clear that the act of mourning can't be transferred: Modiano's Paris is not the Paris the jihadists attacked, and he has nothing to say about the problems and divisions the city has long faced. His books are set in its seedy suburbs, never in the impoverished concrete cités of the banlieues. When Parisians picked a book to symbolise their defiance following those atrocities, they didn't choose their new laureate; they turned to Ernest Hemingway, and his highly romanticised memoir of the 1920s, A Moveable Feast.

There is some mention of France's colonial past in Modiano's books, but the wellspring of their politics is most often the Second World War, with its black marketeering, collaboration and anti-Semitism. Not that he ever treats these subjects directly; instead, he covers them in multiple gauzy layers of reticence and forgetfulness – romanticism of a different order. If the film noir of the post-war years was a study in moral complexity that played itself out, inevitably, in an act or acts of violence, then these are romans gris – no one ever actually kills anyone, but someone has always died, sometime in the past, and the story is an attempt to come to terms with that, in the sad cafés and too-changed streets of the present-day city.

That is not to say that the books are not interesting or powerful – or, in fact, very good indeed. The prose – elliptical, muted, eloquent – falls on the reader like an enchantment, and no less so in English than in French. No one is currently writing such beautiful tales of loss, melancholy and remembrance, and these two recent works are no exception.

In The Café of Lost Youth is an elegy for a particular café, Le Condé, in a particular area, l'Odéon, and for a particular disparate group that drank there – and for a particular girl among them, Louki. Different sections are narrated by a student hanger-on, a private detective, a would-be writer and Louki herself. The writer, Roland, is trying to put together a book about the "neutral zones" of Paris, while another regular at Le Condé doggedly fills a notebook with a record of everyone who comes in for a drink.

Although everyone has their reason for wanting to know more about Louki, and although she has the chance to tell her own story, in a way you have to take her on trust. She could be any softly spoken, alluring and mysterious twenty-something woman, and because Modiano's narrators have a tendency to skate over the salient facts, even as they chase them down, she risks slipping through your fingers – indeed, she seems designed to do so.

Unlike in Proust – an obvious point of comparison – time for Modiano is never really findable again: "I was alone outside the leather-goods shop Au Prince de Condé. I pressed my forehead against the window to see whether any vestige remained of the café...Nothing. Everything was sleek and shiny and covered in an orange material. And it was like this everywhere in the area. At least, no one was unlikely to meet any ghosts. The ghosts themselves were dead."

There is a woman in The Black Notebook, too, but she is more deeply embedded in one of the quasi-criminal groupings that keep cropping up in Modiano's world. Here, they are the "Unic hotel gang", named for their base in the rue du Montparnasse. "Dannie, Paul, Aghamouri, Duwelz, Gérard Marciano [and] 'Georges'" are the names the narrator, Jean, finds in his old notebook, where as a young man he had kept notes of their dealings. He had even been interrogated by the police over a "nasty incident" the woman, Dannie, had been involved in.

Like Louki, Danni is an obsession, largely because she is gone. The regret in Modiano is endemic, but stops short of self-parody. "Do we have the right to judge the people we love?" someone asks in The Black Notebook. "If we love them, it's for a reason, and that reason prevents us from judging them – doesn't it?"

These two books are certainly excellent ways into Modiano, but then his house is one with dozens of excellent entrances, and in the end a very small number of rooms in which to wander, wondering why it all looks so familiar.

MacLehose Press, £14.99. Order at £12.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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