The Black Notebook

Written by Mark Polizzotti (trans.) Patrick Modiano
Review by Ann Chamberlin

Years after, the black notebook he kept of his life in 1960s Paris helps a writer put sinister, even violent, events of the past together in this brief novel. First, this probably shouldn’t be classified as a historical novel, since the author lived through the period and the narrator is called Jean (the author’s given names are Jean Patrick). Second, it is a very French, if not to say Parisian, book. It smokes with the flavor of that period, the atmospheric nouveau roman, Gauloises held tightly between trembling thumb and forefingers and brought to thin lips—but already with that sentence I’ve evoked as much as these 131 pages do for the uninitiated.

Characters and events receive less outline than an Al Hirschfeld caricature may convey to someone unfamiliar with the American stars of the same time period. 1960s Paris gave us a bloody student revolt that grew to a nationwide strike involving 11 million at the same time the U.S. mustered brief riots at a Chicago convention. There are Moroccan connections hinted at among the characters. Are we to understand that this is code for Algerian, for pieds noirs, for violence between colonized and colonizers that bled over into Paris and echoes still in the European capital? Who can say? Who can be enlightened? Some references are real and peel back the nighttime fog in the wet cobble streets to previous scenes of guillotine and poet suicide evoked only by the recitation of unfamiliar names.

Wikipedia ever at the ready is a lot to demand of the notoriously slothful American reader, especially when there are a lot of fictionalized red herrings. Withheld information may conjure universal possibilities to some, but I think few historical novel readers will find this worth the effort.