French writer Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel prize for Literature, creates a film noir atmosphere in The Black Notebook. Obscure scribblings in a writer’s notebook trigger scenes from the seedier side of Paris, and Modiano keeps the reader off balance by jumping from past to present to dream sequences. Despite its short length, The Black Notebook is complicated and intriguing.
The story of The Black Notebook revolves around the narrator’s attempt to discover what became of Dannie, a mysterious woman he met in Paris nearly half a century earlier. When he met Dannie, Jean called himself a “spectator,” noting down everything in his black notebook, which he uses to recall their time together years earlier.
Dannie associates with the “Montparnasse gang,” a shady group of criminals who help her get a place to live and provide her with false identity papers. What she does in return is left unsaid. Although a police detective, Langlais, warns Jean to beware of the gang and exposes Dannie’s many aliases, Jean continues to help Dannie with her strange requests and yearns to run away with her – despite her confession of having killed a man. Dannie disappears and Jean grows into a famous author, but years later, he bumps into the police inspector who reveals the answers to most of his unanswered questions.
Modiano’s short book reads like a meditation on memory – what we remember and how convoluted it becomes over the years. The mystery of Dannie is never really solved, and the author ends with more unsettling questions.
The Black Notebook may be a book for our times with its confusion, uncertainty, and elusive promises. In the end, Jean advises – “…don’t fret about it…”