Book review: The Black Notebook – I love France 205

The Black Notebook



Author: Patrick Modiano
Translator: Mark Polizzotti
Publisher: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
US Release date: 9/27/2016
L’herbe des nuits
was first released in French in 2012
Pages: 144
ISBN: 978-0544779822
also available as ebook


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You read the first paragraph, and you know right away who wrote The Black Notebook:

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.

With the narrator obsessed with the past, and living half in memories, that’s Modiano all right. Obsessed by memories of people and buildings as well:

It was an obsession of mine to want to know what had occupied a given location in Paris over successive layers of time.

And yet his past is elusive, and only his black notebook, full of jottings, of names, and phone numbers, is the sole tangible sign attesting to the reality of what happened to Dannie, a friend of his. But his memories are haunted with a cluster of connections whose “outlines have grown hazy with time, their voices inaudible.”

I’m searching for something to bring them back to life before my eyes, something that might let me feel their presence after all this time.

 If the past is elusive, the present is hardly more palpable, as he feels a stranger in the modernized neighborhood, so much changed that he cannot recognize the very place where he used to live as a young man. He is not much more than a “nocturnal spectator”.

 So much so than the past is definitely more important to him:

I traveled back in time. The present no longer counted, with its indistinguishable days in their doleful light, which must be the light of old age, when you feel as if you’re merely living on.


Sometimes life can be monotonous and quotidian, like today when I’m writing these pages, hoping to find an escape route and vanish through a breach.

Scanning his past is sometimes successful:

Those names lay dormant in my memory, but they hadn’t been erased. And last night, a buried memory resurfaced.

Can we even talk about his past per se? It seems rather to be a timeless gloomy life:

The past? No, it’s not about the past, but about episodes in a timeless, idealized life, which I wrest page by page from my drab current existence to give it some light and shadow. This afternoon, we are in the here and now, it’s raining, people and things are plunged in gray, and I’m impatiently waiting for night, when everything will stand out more sharply, thanks to those same contrasts of shadow and light.


For me, there has never been a present or a past. Everything blends together.

Everything gets jumbled in your mind, past, present, and future; everything is superimposed.

I no longer saw a very clear distinction between past and present.


Since my youth… I had done nothing but talk, always in the same streets, to the point where time had become transparent.

As I have already underlined in a previous review on Modiano’s books, you do not read this author for the plot. The beauty is in the ambiance and in the evocative style of writing. If you have already read one book by Modiano, you will find in familiar territory. In fact, Modiano himself, when interviewed at the time when he received the Nobel Prize in literature, said that he basically only wrote one book, even though he has written so far close to 30 novels.

So the story does revolve around Dannie. Twenty years after he had spent some time with her, he discovers something shady in her life. But again, you will never exactly know what happened for sure.
Instead, you will accompany the narrator through the streets of Paris and his grayscale labyrinth between past and present.


Un autre roman typiquement à la Modiano. Parfait si vous avez envie de vous perdre une fois de plus dans un labyrinthe gris-noir entre passé et présent. L’ambiance est reconnaissable dès les premières lignes, même dans la traduction en anglais. Bien sûr c’est pas folichon si vous attendez une histoire avec un début et une fin, mais ce n’est pas ce qu’on attend quand on ouvre un roman de Modiano.

VERDICT: Another great typical book by Modiano. The excellent translation lets you plunge once more in Modiano’s hazy labyrinth between past and present.


A writer’s notebook becomes the key that unlocks memories of a love formed and lost in 1960s Paris.
In the aftermath of Algeria’s war of independence, Paris was a city rife with suspicion and barely suppressed violence. Amid this tension, Jean, a young writer adrift, met and fell for Dannie, an enigmatic woman fleeing a troubled past. A half century later, with his old black notebook as a guide, he retraces this fateful period in his life, recounting how, through Dannie, he became mixed up with a group of unsavory characters connected by a shadowy crime. Soon Jean, too, was a person of interest to the detective pursuing their case–a detective who would prove instrumental in revealing Dannie’s darkest secret.
The Black Notebook bears all the hallmarks of this Nobel Prize–winning literary master’s unsettling and intensely atmospheric style, rendered in English by acclaimed translator Mark Polizzotti (Suspended Sentences). Once again, Modiano invites us into his unique world, a Paris infused with melancholy, uncertain danger, and the fading echoes of lost love.


Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano is a French language novelist
and winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature.
He is a winner of the Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française in 1972,
the Prix Goncourt in 1978
for his novel Rue des boutiques obscures
and of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014.

Modiano’s parents met in occupied Paris during World War II and began their relationship in semi-clandestinity. Modiano’s childhood took place in a unique atmosphere: between the absence of his father — of which he heard many troubled stories — and his mother’s frequent tours, he had to complete his secondary education by government aid. This brought him closer to his brother, Rudy, who died of a disease at age 10 (the works of Patrick Modiano from 1967 to 1982 are dedicated to him). This disappearance announced the end of the author’s childhood, who continued to hold a marked nostalgia for this period.

Modiano studied at the École du Montcel primary school in Jouy-en-Josas, at the Collège Saint-Joseph de Thônes in Haute-Savoie, and then at the Lycée Henri-IV high school in Paris. While he was at Henri-IV, he took geometry lessons from writer Raymond Queneau, who was a friend of Modiano’s mother. He received his baccalaureate at Annecy but didn’t proceed with his higher education.

His meeting with Queneau, the author of Zazie dans le métro, is crucial. Modiano was introduced to the literary world by Queneau, and this gave him the opportunity to attend a cocktail party given by publishing house Éditions Gallimard. He published his first novel, La Place de l’Étoile, with them in 1968, after having read the manuscript to Raymond Queneau. Starting that year, he did nothing but write.

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Is there an author that you similarly read
more for the ambiance than for the plot?


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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this ebook free of charge from the publisher through Netgalley.
I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.

This book counted for these Reading Challenges

French Bingo 2016 logoBooks in Translation 2016
New-Release-Challenge2016   ebook



9 thoughts on “Book review: The Black Notebook – I love France 205

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  6. What a helpful and interesting review! Through your presentations of his books I am beginning to get an idea of Modiano as a writer and the “one book” that he wrote many times, with variations on the surface but recurrent themes and outlook. This sameness lets us meet the writer, so to speak, or at least the part of himself that he gives to his books, perhaps more than someone who disappears in a greater variety of books.

    I loved the last sentence! Like the narrator, you lead us “through the streets of Paris and his grayscale labyrinth between past and present.”


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