Daily Book Review: 'Paris Nocturne'

Sunday, December 13, 2015 - 3:09pm

When he won the Nobel Prize in 2014, few of Patrick Modiano’s novels had been translated into English, partly because he hadn’t won a major international award. To Anglophone audiences, especially in America, he was an enigma. He remains so, but much more of Modiano’s approximately 30 books have been translated — including “Paris Nocturne,” a thin, nebulous novella about a young man who loses his memory in a car accident.

While walking the Parisian streets one night, the unnamed narrator of “Paris Nocturne,” a young man with “No studies. No family. No social group,” is hit by a “sea-green Fiat.” He seems to recognize the driver, a young woman with blonde hair. The woman vaguely reminds him of a house from his childhood. His memory conjures only diminished details of the past, and he’s left on a search to assemble what happened and who he is.

After hospitalization for injuries sustained in the accident, the narrator is released with a mysterious envelope full of banknotes. There’s no explanation and no one from the accident to question. He wanders through Paris, looking for the young woman. He attends lectures by a man named Dr. Bouviere who says that “life is an eternal return,” and, occasionally, he meets his father, who “was one of those transients who were forever changing their identities, never settling anywhere, never leaving a trace.”

Eventually, the narrator finds the woman, who is named Jacqueline Beausergent. But his investigation into the accident and the woman in the sea-green Fiat is more than a reconstitution of the crime scene:

“I asked myself if I wasn’t trying to discover, despite the obscurity of my origins and the chaos of my childhood, a fixed point, something reassuring, a landscape even, that would help me to regain my footing. There was perhaps a whole section of my life that I didn’t know about, a solid foundation beneath the shifting sands. And I was relying on the sea-green Fiat and its driver to help me discover it.”

And it’s here, in the spaces between memory and forgetting, between recognition and misperception, that Modiano crafts the novella. It’s an elliptical story that’s less focused on what memories reveal than what they don’t. At one point, the narrator questions how “an entire episode of my life, the face of someone who must have loved me, a house, all of it tipped into oblivion, into the unknown, forever.”

“Paris Nocturne” is a Proustian noir, a detective story where the missing person is the narrator himself and his past. But it lacks the moral situation of a noir novel: There’s no good or bad. Instead, the novel soaks in its moral and narrative ambiguities. It’s a forgetting of things past, an investigation of the self and the thousands of half-remembered phenomena and details that constitute it. And the plot of the novella is the search for plot itself, for the web of sundered details and memories that forge a coherent narrative. But the narrator’s search through Paris brings little resolution. His past remains a mystery; his identity remains unknown, and the story ends with a whimper.

Modiano’s Paris is post-war Paris, a city still under the fog of the Occupation. Most of Modiano’s fiction focuses on this particular historical Paris and the mood it holds. “Paris Nocturne” is, in fact, more a mood than a proper book. It feels like a strange, ephemeral lyric poem to post-war Paris. One will leave the novella with little memory of the plot details and characters. Instead, “Paris Nocturne” renders a string of images loosely held together in a book. The prose, in an elegant translation by Phoebe Weston-Evans, is both lucid and opaque, as though it were pinged with a synesthetic.

It’s often argued that Modiano keeps writing the same book, and the author himself has said, in his work, “These repetitions have a hypnotic quality, like a litany.” And “Paris Nocturne” feels less like a self-sustained work than a movement in a symphony. But ultimately, the book, and much of Modiano’s work, is about the necessity of remembering the traces of human life which history can’t record and rendering them in art — unverifiable, ambiguous, lasting.