At some point in his twilit, enigmatic novels of vanished lives and buried memories Patrick Modiano likes to jolt his reader with a glimpse of the all-too-real horrors that underpin his work. In Invisible Ink, such a moment comes when the narrator recalls images from a post war trial, where ‘behind the accused were about 30 suitcases — the only remaining traces of persons who had gone missing’.
You might say that Modiano has spent a literary lifetime in opening those suitcases to find out whose lives they contained. Born in Paris in 1945 to a Belgian actress mother and a Jewish father who had survived the Occupation by weaving through an underworld of shady deals, he grew up in a family microclimate of evasion and oblivion. It matched the public amnesia about collaboration and betrayal in France itself. ‘Faced with the silence of our parents, we worked it all out,’ he said in his 2014 Nobel lecture (a model of its kind, by the way) after, to some surprise beyond France, he won the prize.
Several of his brief, sinister and peerlessly atmospheric books — more than 20 since 1968 — have plunged overtly into what he calls the ‘primordial darkness’ of Paris under Nazi rule. The early ‘Occupation trilogy’, the semi-documentary search for the fate of one girl deported to Auschwitz in Dora Bruder, and the succinct but scorching revelations of his memoir Pedigree, gaze into the molten core of the trauma he inherited.
Much of his fiction, though, tells obliquely of detective quests for forgotten or erased persons and events through the streets of an eerily inscrutable metropolis. Here the sleuth must decrypt an obliterated past as if it were (as Invisible Ink puts it) ‘an ancient language. Like Etruscan’. His amnesiac Paris becomes a city where everyone disappears — if not quite without trace.
Modiano’s stories circle, perhaps obsessively, around the same unhealed wounds. In Invisible Ink, a man named Jean Eyben looks back to his youthful stint as a trainee private eye in Paris and his fruitless pursuit of a missing woman who called herself Noëlle Lefebvre. Who was she, what befell her, and how — a classic Modiano maneuver — does his quarry’s past connect to the gumshoe’s early memories to form ‘a missing link in my own life’?
Modiano fans will not expect or want any gift-wrapped resolution, although an odd coda set in Rome hints at some degree of ‘closure’.
Rather, we relish the spine-prickling psychogeography of Paris, especially the 15th arrondissement south of the Eiffel Tower. Here Eyben mooches around café s, shops, streets, even garages, ‘those spaces where memory blurs into forgetting’. At first ‘neither accustomed nor inclined to look to the past’, later he understands that a remembered life has not only ‘blanks’ in its fabric but a ‘refrain’ — a pattern or motif, ‘like the words of a children’s song that still has a hold on you’.
We learn in stray fragments about Noëlle’s time in Paris, her boyfriend Sancho (or Serge?) and his Chrysler convertible, a failed actor who went by the name of Gérard Mourade, their flash chum Brainos and his dancehall, and her childhood in the same lakeside town as the investigator. (Modiano also went to school in Annecy.)
Nothing amounts to very much; no great historical secret comes clearly to light. With Modiano, the repressed always returns — but only in flickers and whispers at the edge of perception. His spare, elliptical prose — translated again with finesse and panache by Mark Polizzotti — casts its glow of mystery and menace over the tiniest detail, like lamps along the Seine’s quais in a misty winter dusk.
We leave so little behind, Modiano hints; only a few ‘secrets and receding lines’ endure. The dogged sleuth must make them, through memory and story, into ‘the opposite of death’ — the death that, in its genocidal form, his parents somehow cheated to allow this past haunted voice and vision to exist.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2021 US edition.