The Black Notebook, which was originally published in French in 2012, caught my eye at the library after I’d seen this post on Instagram: I like the cover a lot, how layered and atmospheric it is, the way the different urban images are juxtaposed. I’d never read anything by Modiano, and I’m not sure if this short novel was the best place to start: maybe? (If you’ve read anything by him, I’d love to hear your thoughts.) For a book under two hundred pages, it felt like slow going to me, and I sometimes found myself slightly bored by the flatness of the characters, but there were also things about it that I found really appealing.

The black notebook of the title is one that Jean, the book’s narrator (who is a writer) kept when he was younger, in the 1960s. It’s now fifty years later and he finds himself consulting the notebook again as he thinks about the time when he was writing in it, a time when, for a few months, he was dating a mysterious young woman who hung around with some shady-seeming men at a Paris hotel. There’s a little bit of a noir/mystery feel to this book, but not entirely: it’s less plot-driven than that might imply, and there’s not really a big revelation or a tidy ending. It’s not exactly character-driven either: several of the characters are little more than names, and Dannie remains largely a mystery, though the narrator does learn some things about her that he didn’t previously know.

More than anything else, this book to me felt like a combination of place-driven and idea-driven and image-driven. I suspect that if I knew the Paris neighborhoods and landmarks being discussed as intimately as I know New York, I would have liked it even more than I did, but even without a strong sense of the geography (or the scenery or history, beyond what the book includes), I liked the sense I got of the changing city, where the narrator recognizes some buildings fifty years later but realizes that other places have been transformed, with whole streets erased for new construction. The city and the layers of its past are one of the narrator’s concerns even as a young man: some of the things he wrote down in his notebook, in the 1960s, were the names of painted signs for old businesses (tanneries, wine warehouses) that will probably soon disappear. As someone who is really fond of cities/history/layers/old signs myself, I found this really appealing.

In terms of ideas and images, there is a lot here about memory and identity, the distance or lack thereof between the past and the present, between one’s past self and one’s present self, and also a lot about the remove at which the narrator moved through his life when he was younger, writing things down but not necessarily understanding their import, not piecing together the strands of narrative connecting the people around him. A recurrent image throughout the book is a pane of glass separating the narrator from something or someone else: lit apartment windows that give you “a feeling of both presence and absence,” a metaphorical train window beyond which the scenery passes quickly, an imagined window of a subway car through which he thinks about looking at someone he knows, a pane of glass separating a prisoner from a visitor (in a dream), a café window through which the narrator and someone from his past recognize each other, a hotel lobby window outside which the narrator stands, unseen. That sense of distance is sometimes present in the narrative itself, which I think is why it felt like slow going, but it’s intentional and I guess it worked: I found it striking and thought the images where it’s made explicit were some of the loveliest passages of the book, like this, which the narrator uses to explain what he was doing in writing things down in his black notebook, “to have a reference point later”:

A train rushes by a station too fast for you to read the name of the town. And so, with your forehead pressed against the window, you note down other details: a passing river, the village bell tower, a black cow ruminating beneath a tree, removed from the herd. You hope that at the next station you’ll be able to read the name and find out what region you’re in. (13)

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