What is it about Paris?
Paris, City of Light… but it’s not about the light. It’s about the darkness that drifts like fog through timeworn streets in summer. It’s about the gloom that lingers ‘till mid-morning in winter, transparent sheeting draped across your street café adding to the obscurity in a vain effort to keep in the warmth and keep out exhaust fumes.
It’s not about the lights, not the queues nor croissants nor loveless Louvre. Nor Eiffel Tower, parade ground of frustrated hopes, children screaming on a merry-go-round while parents line up for tickets and argue with vendors over cotton candy prices, children’s ice creams melting into desultory puddles in muddy soil stamped bare by queueing boots.
Anyone who’s been to Paris and returned lamenting the queues and the dogshit and the rude waiters went in pursuit of magazine photos and got what they deserve. Such tourist spots are like great energy wells, extracting the life force from the tens of thousands that hurriedly frenzy to and fro from day to day.
But that energy, that great vitality, sucked up from the hordes of tourists and others, doesn’t dissipate. It soaks into the city and re-emerges at other focal points, feeding the ferocious, sensuous vitality of the city. There’s an irony in that the place known as the City of Light finds its truest vitality, the subtle and sensuous energy that compels it, in the dark shadows and ephemeral recesses of its back streets and undergrounds.
Whatever it is that we love about this, it’s captured in the novels of Patrick Modiano. They’re barely novels; more like brief snapshots, quick gasps of the rarefied air of Paris.
Modiano has distilled his sense of Paris into a literary formula. His latest to appear in English translation is The Black Notebook (originally published in French in 2012); a quick read in the first person, somewhere between mystery novella and faux memoir. The essential elements of a Modiano work are all here.
First: the roguish narrator, a hapless ne’er do well from a poor background who’s attracted to darker and dirtier characters, although he never quite stoops to their level. An observer of humanity, with an innate sympathy for those forced into the criminalized margins. Wherever he goes, he can’t help but feel he’s not supposed to be there.
“And it seemed almost normal, so accustomed was I to living without the slightest sense of legitimacy, a sense reserved for those who have had good, honest parents and belong to a well-defined social milieu.”
A witness to humanity, who observes without judgment.
“I didn’t feel the need to ask her any questions. Rather than always subjecting others to interrogation, it’s better to accept them as they are… one must always take the people one loves on their own terms, and especially not demand any explanations from them.”
And who can’t help but slip into a cynical voice, when the opportunity arises?
“Back then, I already sensed that no one answers questions.”
Second element: locating the narrative precisely in the streets of Paris, depicted in abundance.
“Once at the Seine, we didn’t take the metro at Javel station, as we normally did to go to the Right Bank. Instead, we turned around and headed back down Rue de la Convention. She was intent on showing me the building where she’d lived. When we reached the café, we turned onto Avenue Felix-Faure, taking the right-hand sidewalk.”
A city described not only across its vast breadth but across time. The narrator walks into present-day office buildings and department stores and conjures up the memory of vanished squares and dubious bars which marked the spot decades earlier.
“It was an obsession of mine to want to know what had occupied a given location in Paris over successive layers of time.”
And finally, the third element: a poignant and philosophical sense of pathos, often effected by means of flashbacks from the cynical perspective of old age.
[W]hat a strange feeling, every time, when you learn things twenty years after the fact about people you once knew… You finally decipher, thanks to a secret code, what you had lived through in confusion and without really understanding… A car ride at night with the headlights off, and no matter how tightly you press your forehead against the window, you have no reference points. And besides, did you really ask that many questions about where you were going? Twenty years later, you follow the same path by day and finally see all the details surrounding you. But so what? It’s too late, and no one is left.
Modiano has an advantage. The streets of Paris, juxtaposing as they do the ageless permanence of the city against the ephemeral, shifting eruptions of its cafes and pubs and hotels and dark corners, lend themselves well to musings on time and age.
I do think that there is, in fact, a way to combat oblivion: go into certain areas of Paris where you haven’t set foot in thirty or forty years and spend the afternoon, as if on a stakeout. Perhaps the women and men you’ve been wondering about might suddenly appear around a street corner, or along a path in the park, or will emerge from one of the buildings that border those empty mews labeled “Square” or “Villa.”
Modiano writes with the sort of pathos, mood and sense of place that would be considered insufferable and over the top in a musician, but still works quite well in literature. What we would not tolerate in an overly-made-up musician name-dropping people and places as he laments his tough upbringing, we do tolerate in a Nobel Prize-winning author, because he takes us to those places with him.
The mystery and plot of The Black Notebook are so thin as to be non-existent and beside the point anyway—they sum up as: Who are these people? What crime did this woman commit? What will happen to them?—but the broader point of the work is to transport us to those dark streets of long-lost ‘60s Paris, shrouded in wisps of moonlight and cigarette smoke amid people we observe but never really understand. Someday, perhaps, a virtual reality headset will achieve a similar purpose. But until then we will require writers, and Modiano is among our best.
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