Yale University Press | October 27, 2020
Life—or memory, or history—is a glorified detective story. Or at least, that seems to be the stance of the French novelist Patrick Modiano. Since winning the Nobel Prize in 2014, Modiano has seen his voluminous back catalogue of slim, existential noirs get the sort of translation treatment most prolific international writers can only dream of. His books have appeared in English at a furious pace, sometimes two or three a year, though none of them seems so self-aware, so couched in the inherent open-endedness of our digital present, as Invisible Ink, out this month from Yale University Press.
Translated by Mark Polizzotti, Invisible Ink has a familiar feel. The novel opens in the 1960s. Jean Eyben, our narrator, is twenty years old and working at the Hutte Detective Agency in Paris, where his first assignment is to track down a young woman named Noëlle Lefebvre. If you’re familiar with Modiano’s plotting preferences, you’ll recognize it’s unlikely that Jean will ultimately find Noëlle Lefebvre—or at the very least, it’s unlikely that he’ll find her at the right time.
Jean’s quest through the falsely glimmering demimonde of postwar Paris finds him tailing doppelgangers, rummaging through abandoned apartments, and lounging on café terraces and thinking, sadly and sweetly, about life’s more evanescent qualities. In an electric vignette, he sits down with Gérard Mourade, an acquaintance of Noëlle’s, and pretends to have been friends with the missing woman. The conversation—in which Mourade is at first skeptical, then hesitant, then sadly, and brokenly, open—is charged with suspense, but the real pathos lies in the scene’s delicate counterpoint.
After a section break, Jean, narrating in the present day, explains that he’s transcribed the dialogue with Mourade from memory, while granting that “after such a stretch of years only scraps of it remain.” He contemplates, briefly, what he’d feel if he possessed a recording of the meeting:
“If so, listening to it today, I wouldn’t feel like our conversation took place so far in the past, but rather that it belonged to an eternal present. In the background, for all time, you would have heard the sounds of a spring afternoon on Rue de la Convention, the shouts of children coming home from the school next door—children who by now would be middle-aged.”
The wistful tone here is deceptive; you’d be hard put to imagine a concept more grating to Modiano than an eternal present. In fact, later on, we find Modiano, through Jean, ruminating on the internet, whose promise of informational immanence runs counter to his fictional technique: “You’d only have to copy down sentences that appear on your screen, without the slightest effort of imagination.”
Escape, the duplicity of memory, and oblivion itself—all, Modiano suggests, are essential to the act of living, which entails the periodic recreation of the self. What makes Invisible Ink such an enchanting read is its insistence on the importance of “those spaces where memory blurs into forgetting,” and its glyptic insights into the mechanisms by which forgetting offers up alternative chronologies, which in turn allow the past to be reconfigured.
Novels that center around the reconfiguration of memory—think Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day or Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending—tend to mount an implicit argument that a fundamental reality exists, which, overlooked, provides the book’s drama. But for Modiano, each reconfiguration of memory is simply another step in an endless series—there is no consummate arrangement of events and relations. (Of course, part of this difference comes from Modiano’s interest in fleeting, glancing relationships, while Ishiguro, for instance, focuses on lifelong relationships built on quiet misunderstandings.)
But that’s not to say the mechanism of memory evinced by Invisible Ink is fatalistic. The irreducible “secrets and receding lines” of a life seem, to Jean, “the opposite of death.” In another rumination, Jean describes the gaps of memory and lacunae of the past as lifesavers of a sort: “I’m afraid that once you have all the answers, your life closes in on you like a trap, with the clank of keys in a prison cell.” He wonders, “Wouldn’t it be better to leave empty lots around you, into which you escape?”
But who, exactly, is trapped? In many of Modiano’s novelettes, the missing person around whom the narrator’s quest coalesces simply disappears, becoming, in their ultimate absence, a totemic figure. The narrator is left to ponder how the missing person might view their own life, how they might interpret the fugitive moments and meetings that obsess him. In other words, there’s an equilibrium of attachment and a sense of proportionality to the narrator’s fascination that prevents the plot from feeling too melodramatic.
But there’s a lovely twist in Invisible Ink. The last thirty or so pages are told from Noëlle’s perspective in the present day. We learn that she’s lived in Rome for most of her life, and that those few months she had spent in Paris as a young woman “had gradually faded from her memory” and “become a few hours, as if she had spent them in a waiting room between two trains.” Jean has tracked her down in Rome and engages in a conversational dance that mirrors his earlier interview with Mourade. But he’s disappointed; Noëlle remembers none of the names that he’s puzzled over for decades, the addresses and phone numbers he’s teased from oblivion.
The novel ends with Noëlle, her memory suddenly excited, deciding to tell her past to Jean the next day. “She saw him in profile and suddenly that profile reminded her of someone,” the text reads. “She had heard that people are often more recognizable in profile than head-on, and for once she trusted her memory.”
Pathos, in Modiano’s work, is generally a wispy, rain-soaked affair. His emotional payloads court the ineffable, resolving often into a feeling of windsweptness, of the multiplication of doubts, of having missed out or of having somehow, subtly, led oneself astray. His novels seem tacitly to ascribe to Barthes’s description of literature as “never anything but a certain obliquity, in which we get lost.” And so it hits, and hits hard, to find at the close a character doing what would almost seem, given all that’s gone before, an impossibility: trusting her memory.