Reviewed by John Biscello
by Patrick Modiano
Yale University Press, 176 pp., $24.00
If there is a suitcase, forged documentation, café-life and tons of mileage accumulated tramping the streets of Paris, it’s a pretty safe guess that you are inside a Patrick Modiano novel. The French writer, whose Nobel Prize in 2014 launched him into a new stratosphere of exposure, acclaim and readership (with many of his works now having been translated into English), has been haunting a familiar path, a twilit phantom territory all his own, for the past fifty-plus years.
In his latest novel, Invisible Ink, the plot, as is par for the course in Modiano’s novels, is a simple one: A young man, employed as a private detective, searches for a missing woman. This is how Modiano works. Give him a basic point of intrigue, or agitated stimulus, and from there he “wanders” in a centrifugal haze as he constructs through language all that is clean, terse and elliptical. Invisible Ink, like many of Modiano’s books that have preceded it, eulogizes itself as an adagio and existential meditation on memory, loss, longing and identity, where past and present fluidly intersect, or as Jean, Modiano’s narrator establishes, “I have never respected chronological order. It has never existed for me. Present and past blend together in a kind of transparency, and every instant I lived in my youth appears to me in an eternal present, set apart from everything.”
Like Proust before him, Modiano is an orphaned stalker of memory, and his oeuvre, taken as a whole, could be regarded as a continuous novel, a noir-inflected search for lost time. If Sam Spade were channeled through Proust, and then cast in a David Lynch film, hints of Modiano’s essence would seep through.
I must detour here and say that I recently went on a calculated Modiano binge, reading a dozen of his books in a two-month span. Having been wholly immersed in his world, I find it hard to review Invisible Ink without considering Modiano’s other novels, or the scope of the literary geography that he has carved out with an insistent singularity.
In this respect, the legendary filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu comes to mind. Ozu created a body of work comprising individual parts that felt like subtly modified replicas and variations on repeated themes—what you might call a cinema of recursion. There was family and the foundation of tradition, both a stabilizer and glue-trap; there was the past rubbing uncomfortably against the present; there were fragmented conversations and deep silences. And stillness. As if any sudden or hasty movements would disturb a delicate and tenuous order, would unsettle a bated symmetry. While the subject matter and environments may differ (Ozu’s world is that of post-war Japan, while Modiano’s often finds its magnetic core in 1960s Paris), there is kinship in their tonal qualities, methodical execution, and stringent preoccupation with a fixed tablature of themes.
And so, in adopting a holistic view of Modiano’s legacy, reading Invisible Ink is like entering a room that is connected to a large and mysterious house built inside a labyrinth, or traversing a half-lit boulevard that speaks to an entire neighborhood. In other words, if you have not yet had the pleasure of reading a book by Patrick Modiano, and you start with Invisible Ink, it would be a disservice to stop there. Much like Jean, who feels like “an amnesiac who had been handed a very detailed route that he has to follow in a place that was once familiar,” the haunting grounds which are explored in Invisible Ink extend far beyond the parameters of a single novel; they demand repeated and retraced footsteps in a district of fugue and gloaming. Other books, doubling as gateways, through which to enter and experience this city which Modiano has so indelibly architected: In the Café of Lost Youth, Paris Nocturne, After the Circus, and Out of the Dark, to name several.
There is a wonderful passage in Invisible Ink that reads like writing advice on spontaneous prose ala Jack Kerouac: “I think it’s better to let the writing flow. Yes, memories occur as the pen flies. You shouldn’t force them, but just write, crossing out as little as possible. And in the uninterrupted flow of words and sentences, a few details which you’ve forgotten or buried at the bottom of your memory . . . will slowly rise to the surface. Above all, don’t break momentum, but rather keep in mind the image of a skier gliding for all eternity down a steep trail, like the pen on a blank page.”
This is how both Modiano, and his alter-ego, Jean, conduct an investigation that aligns slippery and elusive “facts” to a climate of thin, unstable air. The search for a missing woman parallels the search for something that was lost within Jean and thus, in echoing Henry Miller’s claim that “voyages are accomplished inwardly,” Jean ceaselessly journeys inward to find the golden means to bridge a vacancy and restore an essential piece of himself to himself. It is, in a mythical and metaphysical sense, the journey that we are all taking, upon which Modiano, with the oblique bent of a literary cryptographer, has architected both a novel and raison d’être.
John Biscello is Book Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, Mr. Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of three novels, a short story collection, and poetry collection. His collection of plays, Arson & Grace, is forthcoming from CSF Publishing.