Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 10, 2015

Paris Nocturne, by Patrick Modiano, translated by Phoebe Weston-Evans

Paris NocturneThe original French title of Paris Nocturne is Accident nocturne, which, for me, puts a slightly different focus on the book.  Life is a series of accidental events, and in this pensive account, the unnamed narrator is looking back on an accident that he had at some unspecified time a long time ago when he was about to turn twenty-one.  This accident, and other accidental events that swirl around it, has been preying on his mind for a long time…

The book would have put me in mind of Suspended Sentences even if I hadn’t known they were by the same author.  There is the same dreamy quality, that same sense of an ill-defined menace, the same hint of an oppressive presence, the same half-light and mistiness that veils the night, and that same sense of confusion that inhibits action.  And the same elusive people and places that the narrator does not and cannot ever know.

All of us, when we look back over our lives, have vague and unreliable memories of people, places and incidents, but how much more intense this fog of memory must be when the long ago was peopled by an occupying force of great menace and the shadowy figures of the Resistance.  A young adult alert to new experiences and encounters would find childhood reliabilities shattered, and be overwhelmed by huge numbers of strangers bringing menace, be made uneasy by a new order that upsets old certainties, and be confused by familiar adults no longer in charge of their own destiny… And to some extent these uncertainties also permeate the lives of the next generation, in the way that my young life was shaped in part by what my parents experienced as young adults during the war.

Patrick Modiano (b.1945) was awarded the Nobel Prize for work which evokes the most ungraspable human destinies and often explores the Nazi Occupation, an event which still lingers in Parisian memory today.  Even though this novella is set no further back in time than the 1960s, when his character is almost 21, there are still allusions which hint at the shadow of the Occupation.  The accident which sends him on the trail of the mysterious woman in the car jolts him into a new reality, one which he thinks will resolve many issues which have been troubling him.

Place des Pyramides (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Place des Pyramides (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

The moment when the new reality arrives for the narrator begins with a car accident, which takes place at the Place des Pyramides (named for the Battle of the Pyramids in Egypt, a great French victory under Napoleon) as the narrator makes his way to the ironically-named Place de la Concorde which was the site where Louis XVI was guillotined in 1793 along with many others including Marie Antoinette.

Execution of Louis XVI (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Execution of Louis XVI (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Originally named Place Louis XV in 1755, the site was then rebadged as Place de la Révolution, renamed Place de la Concorde as a gesture of reconciliation in 1795, only to have the name Place Louis XV / Place Louis XVI restored under the Bourbons, and finally back to Place de la Concorde in 1830 after the July Revolution.  So the narrator is brought to his knees at the site representing France’s military power, and is suspended on his way to the site that represents the foundation of French democracy, in a quiet allusion to the suspension of Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity) under the Occupation.

I was crossing Place des Pyramides on my way to Place de la Concorde when a car appeared suddenly out of the darkness.  At first I thought it had just grazed me, then I felt a sharp pain from my ankle to my knee.  I fell onto the pavement.  But I managed to get up again.  The car swerved and collided with one of the arcades surrounding the square in a shower of broken glass.  (p. 1)

From this moment, the novel traces the narrator’s attempts to make sense of unreliable memory.  When he comes round from anaesthesia at the Mirabeau Hospital afterwards, the female driver has vanished and a thuggish man makes him sign a waiver, leaving a wad of banknotes behind and an admonition that it would be a good idea to forget all about it.   The ‘report’ that this man leaves behind makes no mention of the clinic and refers instead to a hotel’s casualty department.  Clearly something odd is going on and the narrator mounts a search for the driver, whose name is Jacqueline Beausergent.

But this search is tied up also with his vague memories of other events in his life.  He has unfinished business with his estranged father involved in something shady, and there was a woman who ran over his dog.  He believes that encounters such as this have some meaning:

I had read that only a small numbers of encounters are the product of chance.  The same circumstances, the same faces keep coming back, like the pieces of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope, with the play of mirrors giving the illusion that the combinations are infinitely variable.  But in fact the combinations are rather limited.  (p. 21)

He acknowledges, however, that there was a kind of wilful amnesia in his relationships:

Before the accident, I’d been living for almost a year in Hôtel de la Rue de la Voie-Verte, near Porte d’Orléans.  For a long time, I wanted to forget this period of my life, or else remember only the seemingly insignificant details.

He offers glimpses of a man returning from work, and a chance meeting in a café with a travel agent that he had thought was a student…

They were always to do with people I’d come across, barely glimpsed, and who would remain as mysteries in my mind.

Like the narrator in ‘Afterimage‘ who is haunted by tantalising image-memories of people whose identity he does not and cannot ever know, the narrator in Paris Nocturne tries to catalogue these glimpses:

I even started compiling a list, with approximate dates, of all these lost faces and places, of all those abandoned projects, like the time I tried to enrol at the faculty of medicine, but I didn’t see it through.  My attempts to catalogue all those plans which never saw the light of day and which remained forever on hold, a way of searching for a breach, for vanishing points.  Because I’m reaching the age at which, little by little, life begins to close in on itself. (p.24)

This endless struggle to make sense of the past is something that bothers all of us, at both the personal and the public level.  Modiano make no pretence to resolve it, not even when his narrator meets up with the elusive Jacqueline.  Much as he wants to be comforted by her banal friendliness, in the end it only arouses more suspicion, but when he tells her that he thinks she’s hiding something, her reply is abrupt: she says she has nothing to hide and that Life is far simpler than you think.’

Is it?  The answer seems to be that it’s not.

Author: Patrick Modiano
Title: Paris Nocturne first published as Accident nocturne by Éditions Gallimard in 2003
Translated by Phoebe Weston- Evans
Publisher: The Text Publishing Company, 2015
ISBN: 9781925240108
Review copy courtesy of Text

Fishpond: Paris Nocturne


  1. There are quite a few new releases scheduled here soon, and they all appeal, so I’m going to pick one to start with.


    • I have Little Jewel as well, so that’s next for me. I like the length of his stories, (novellas, not short stories) because although they don’t take long to read, they demand a bit of re-reading to really appreciate them.


      • Possibly So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood or After the Circus

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review.
    He’s really well appreciated by several bloggers I respect.
    I was disappointed by the one I read. I’ve picked his books many times in bookshops but something always holds me back.

    As much as I love Proust’s work on memory, with Modiano I always have the feeling he’s splitting hair and looking for meanings where there aren’t and that he’ll get on my nerves.
    PS strange that they changed the title. I don’t see the point in this case


    • Thanks, Emma:)
      LOL You French can afford to be choosey with your Nobel Prize winning authors, you’ve got so many!
      PS I agree, I can’t see why they fiddled with the title either.


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