Book review: Encre sympathique

Encre sympathique

Encre sympathique
by Patrick Modiano
144 pages
Literary fiction

It was translated in English (Invisible Ink) in 2020 by Mark Polizzotti

I fell in love with Modiano‘s writing back in 1978 with Rue des boutiques obscures (Prix Goncourt – translated as Missing Person). Since then, after reading several more of his novels, I got sometimes tired of his style, with so many characteristics common to all his novels.
Still, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014. And some of his later novels had even sometimes elements closer to the mystery genre, like Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier, translated as So you don’t get lost in the neighborhood).
A French student of mine managed to convince me to try Encre sympathique.

Early on in his work as a private detective, Jean received the assignment to find a missing woman, Noëlle Lefebvre. He failed, but the case has stayed in the back of his mind. Thirty years later, as he revisits old notes, he decides to reopen his investigation, checking Parisian neighborhoods where she may have lived and trying to find and talk to witnesses.

This is a slow read – I think I wrote somewhere earlier than you don’t really read Modiano for a plot. I didn’t find as many details about Paris streets as I have found in other books by Modiano (and there’s even the capital city of another country involved), but memory, another element characteristic of Modiano’s writings, is omnipresent. In fact, this is really all about memory. About exploring its mysterious functioning. 

The title, Encre sympathique [Invisible Ink] refers to details of your life that may have remain buried for a long time, and then, for some reason or anoother, suddenly they come back to life and to your consciousness, just like secret invisible messages can finally become visible when you apply a special substance on them.

Cela me confortait dans l’idée que, si vous avez parfois des trous de mémoire, tous les détails de votre vie sont écrits quelque part à l’encre sympathique.

Along the theme of memory is the theme of identity: with all our buried memories, voluntary or involuntary, do we even know ourselves?

Et sur soi-même en sait-on plus long, si j’en juge par mes propres mensonges et omissions, ou mes oublis involontaires ?

It’s definitely literary fiction, but there is also a dimension of mystery, with suddenly a change in narrator (at 72% of the book), something slowly revealing itself (again like memories buried deep and coming slowly to the surface), and a wonderful end of the story.
As in other of his books, it often feels like Modiano is himself the hero of the book, like in autofiction, a genre I have a hard time with of as a concept, but definitely something lots of French authors have been using.
This short book (176 pages in its English translation) is very representative of this winner of the Nobel Prize in literature.

VERDICT: Very satisfying characteristic novel by Modiano. Perfect introduction to this French winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, if you don’t know him yet.

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Who’s your favorite Nobel Prize winner in literature?




18 thoughts on “Book review: Encre sympathique

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  2. I haven’t read him (yet) :/ I remember before he won the Prix Goncourt, we had removed most of his novels from our shelves at the library because they weren’t borrowed any more, so when the Prix was announced, we had to buy them all back quickly and had to establish waiting lists !


  3. I like Modiano’s writing and find it quite easy to read. I’ve only read four of his books but I can imagine them starting to seem repetitive. He has a very distinct style. His way of dealing with time and space transport me to the location of the story like no other author. A delightful easy read that one of your students might enjoy is Catherine Certitude, illustrated by Sempé. I’ll be adding Rue des boutiques obscures to my TBR list. Thanks for your review.


  4. This does sound good and a short book in French is ideal, I will not soon recover from the Dicker catastrophe … (just kidding, I’m fine really)

    My favorite Nobel winner? Embarrassingly I have read very few. Toni Morrison and Kazuo Ishiguro I can certainly recommend. John Steinbeck is one of my favorites. Hermann Hesse too, and I loved The Good Earth but have not read anything else by Pearl S. Buck. I need to read more Nobel writers!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “With all our buried memories, voluntary or involuntary, do we even know ourselves?” That is all things lovely and sad and powerful, because many of them are “involuntary” indeed, ones we don’t even know we still have. Thanks for sharing this review.


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