Modiano’s novels frequently involve the search for someone he knew in his youth. More often than not, these individuals are women. In Honeymoon, it’s Ingrid Teyrsen, a woman the narrator met briefly during the war in the south of France. In Out of the Dark, it’s Jacqueline, a girl with whom the narrator flees to London after committing a crime; she abandons him there, then reappears 15 years later under the alias Thérèse Caisley. After a brief interlude, she vanishes again. The story of The Black Notebook revolves around Jean’s attempt to discover what became of Dannie, a mysterious woman he met in Paris nearly half a century earlier. He describes Dannie as “no more than a spot of light, without relief, as in an overexposed photograph. A blank.”
Dannie appears out of nowhere. Her past is murky and fluid. She goes by several aliases, including Mireille Sampierry, Michèle Aghamouri, and Jeannine de Chillaud. Her real name is Dominique Roger. She has no family to speak of, no permanent address, no visible means of support. She associates with a group of “losers” — members of the “Montparnasse gang.” This motley crew congregates in the lobby of a seedy hotel where they plan “their dirty tricks.” Various members of the gang aid and abet her existence; they procure her a room in the hotel where they meet, allow her the use of a car, and one of them provides her with false identity papers. What she does in return is left unsaid.
When Jean meets Dannie and her “associates,” he is of the “age of encounters.” Back then, he tells us in retrospect, he was the “nocturnal spectator” who noted down everything in his black notebook. He was an observer who kept “a low profile.” Yet his profile isn’t so low that it escaped notice by a police detective, Langlais, who summons him to the prefecture for questioning about the “Montparnasse gang” and Dannie. Langlais warns Jean not to get mixed up with them.
As in almost all of Modiano’s novels, the setting is Paris. It is the city in which he was born, and the city that continues to fascinate him. In his Nobel Lecture, Modiano refers to Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1842–1843): “The city […] is linked to my very first childhood impressions, and these impressions were so strong that I have been constantly exploring the ‘mysteries of Paris’ ever since.” The reference is of more than passing significance. As Peter Brooks writes in Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (1984), Sue “opened to popular novelistic treatment a certain urban topography and demography, of crime and social deviance, finding and exploiting a new form of the narratable.” In this regard, Modiano is very much his heir. The male characters in many of his novels are shady drifters and grifters, while the women tend to be distant, fragile, and prone to suicide. They all exist on the periphery of respectable bourgeois society. In The Black Notebook, Jean describes himself, succinctly, as one of their ilk: “I had no credit, no legitimacy. No family or defined social status. I floated on the Paris air.”
“Themes of disappearance, identity and the passing of time,” Modiano told the Nobel committee, “are closely bound up with the topography of cities.” In a city, anyone can disappear if they want to; anyone can change their identity by adopting an alias. And cities themselves are always changing, as Baudelaire laments in his “The Swan (Le Cygne)”: “— Old Paris is no more (the form of a city / Changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart).” (Translated by William Aggeler.)
Modiano’s work is long meditation on this urban mutability. Jean and Dannie spend most of their time together desultorily wandering the streets of Paris. They live in shabby rooms in cheap hotels and move frequently. They have no place to call home. They exist in the present, seeking to avoid the “menace that hovered over everything.” This menace emanates from the sketchy people with whom they associate, and from the more abstract, but, in its own way, equally perilous bourgeois society, with its stultifying rules and codes of behavior. Thus, in some sense, the couple is always on the lam.
Many of Modiano’s characters occupy this limbo state. His protagonists are always looking for “neutral zones” to assuage their existential anxiety. In his novel In the Café of Lost Youth, Modiano describes these spaces as “a series of transitional zones in Paris, no-man’s-lands where we were on the border of everything else, in transit, or even held suspended. Within, we benefited from a certain kind of immunity.” But these “neutral zones” are fleeting, and immunity proves elusive.
At one point in The Black Notebook, Jean and Dannie leave Paris altogether. Dannie takes Jean to a house in the country in which they camp out for a few days like squatters. Whose house is it? How does Dannie happen to have a key? These questions are never answered. Back in Paris, the couple sneaks into an apartment to which Dannie happens to have the key, and she removes (steals?) a book, a record player, and some records. We feel these objects are chosen for a reason, but we never learn what that reason is.
On another occasion, Jean waits for Dannie while she pays a visit to someone in a building on Avenue Victor-Hugo. Later she pulls out a wad of cash to pay their bill at a café. Jean speculates that she must have gotten the money while she was in the building. Whom did she see in there? What kind of work does she do? Jean will never know.
Toward the end of The Black Notebook one of the “Montparnasse gang” warns Jean that Dannie was mixed up in something pretty serious, a “nasty incident,” and that she might be held accountable. But he won’t reveal what it is. When Jean questions Dannie about it, she says, “Do I really look like someone who’d get involved in a nasty incident?” Reflecting on her response 50 years later, Jean says, “I believe that already, back then, I had understood that no one ever answers questions.”
Time functions differently for Jean: “there has never been a present or a past.” This sensibility can be revelatory: “Yesterday I was alone in the street and a veil fell away. No more past, no more present — time stood still. Everything has recaptured its true light.” But what this true light reveals is often ambiguous. It can lead him to question the very reality of his life: “It felt like a dream. This often happened in that period of my life, especially after nightfall. […] Everything gets jumbled in your mind, past, present, and future; everything is superimposed.” He tries to recapture his memories, but oblivion overcomes his consciousness, the changing topography of the city “disappears” landmarks, and the people he knew vanish, making his quest impossible.
In his Nobel Lecture, Modiano also cites another major influence, Edgar Allan Poe: “[Poe] was among the first to evoke the waves of humanity he observes outside a café window, walking the pavements in endless succession.” In “The Man of the Crowd,” Poe’s narrator watches the maelstrom of people passing before him during rush hour and becomes fascinated with “a decrepid old man […] a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression.” The man possesses a restlessness that the narrator cannot comprehend. Compelled to learn his identity, he rushes after him, stalking him through the night and into the next day, and even into the second evening. Finally, he confronts the man face to face, but the stranger does not acknowledge him, only stares at him blankly. The narrator realizes he can learn nothing about him.
Poe opens and closes his story with the phrase, “it does not permit itself to be read.” The quote, he says, refers to “a certain German book.” But this insight is just as true of people, and it informs all of Modiano’s work. Just as Poe’s narrator attempts to “read” his man of the crowd, Modiano’s Jean attempts to read the people he had floated among 50 years earlier. He struggles to resolve the enigma of Dannie’s identity from the evidence he has saved, but even after the detective Langlais gives him her police file, he comes to understand that, in the end, his efforts are futile.
“I get the sense that memory is much less sure of itself, engaged as it is in a constant struggle against amnesia and oblivion,” Modiano noted in his lecture. “This layer, this mass of oblivion that obscures everything, means we can only pick up fragments of the past, disconnected traces, fleeting and almost ungraspable human destinies.” It is this sense of the fleeting, ungraspable nature of our lives that infuses Modiano’s writing with an elegiac, melancholic atmosphere. His mission is to weave “bits and pieces from the past” into some semblance of a story, remaining honest to what cannot be known. In The Black Notebook, he continues that mission with skill and compassion.