- Author: Patrick Modiano (1945)
- Title: L’ herbe des nuits (reference to Fouad Bellamine, Algerian painter)
- Cover: metro Paris: Blanche
- Genre: novel
- Publisher: Editions Gallimard
- Published: 2012
- Language: French
- Theme: memory and identity
- Table of contents: 8 chapters, 168 pages.
- Dedication: pour Orson
- Timeline: 1960 – 1964 Paris
- Trivia:The Nobel Prize for Literature 2014 has been awarded to Modiano .
- Trivia: Patrick Modiano is the fifth French writer to receive the prestigious award.
- Jean is a writer ( = Modiano) who wants to relive a time in his life when he fell in love with a young student, Dannie.
- She is involved with some ‘questionable’ figures who roam the streets and cafés of Montparnasse,
- On page 14 Modiano explains what Jean is trying to do: “…time is immobile, and if I glide between the ‘cracks of memory’ I will find everything, intact’.
- There is a strange ‘political’ element to the story when we discover one of the ‘gangsters’ is a Moroccan Secret Service agent.
- I feel that Modiano has used the backdrop of the sudden disappearance of Mehdi Ben Barka. for this story.
- It is likely that we are in 1965, a few months before the kidnapping and disappearance of this main Moroccan politician, socialist opposition to King Hassan II.
- Many members of the ‘gang’ in this book seem to reflect real gangsters at that time:
- Georges Figon
- George Boucheseiche (former employee of the Gestapo)
- actress Anne-Marie Coffinet who was Figon’s mistress
- Mohamed Oufkir (former officer in the French army, became Hassan II right arm)
- Antoine Lopez (informer French Secret Service)
- 47 x “carnet noir” ( little black book) is mentioned
- 75 – 100 x Modiano mentions a labyrinth of places, streets and landmark buildings in Paris. (…. at times confusing because some builidng don’t exist anymore!)
- 8 x Modiano makes references to other books or poems. I tried to find the connection between these books and the narrative. This was a big puzzle!
- Un homme se penche sur son passé (M. Constatin-Weyer)
- Les Portes du Passé (Marie-Berndette Dupuy)
- L’Arrière Montparnasse (Oser Warszawski)
- Servie de la Reine (Anthony Hope)
- Poem: ‘Dannie’ (Jacques Audiberti)
- Fin les Rêves ( Jean de Maesschalck)
- L’eteinte par les astres ( L.A. Blanqui)
- Poem: La petite Jehanne ( Blaise Cendrars)
- Modiano draws our attention to a writer he feels very close to. Nicolas Edme Rétif de la Bretonne.
- Both are “spectateurs nocture”.
- Rétif de la Bretonne wrote about first witness accounts of Paris and the French Revolution in “Les nuits de Paris ou le Spectateur Nocturne ( 1788)
- People from the past drift in and out of the story:
- Jeanne Duval ( muse for Baudelaire), Tristan Corbière (poet), la baronne Blanche whose name was used for rue Blanche (cover)
Point of view:
- Narrator (Jean) is the ‘go-between.
- He does not know ‘everything’ that is going on in the story, but reveals his knowledge to the readers in small bites.
- This builds up the suspense.
- All the characters are described through Jean’s thoughts.
- Modiano describes ‘light’ at least 45 times in the book It was bright – yellow – gloomy – filtered – neon – white – blinding, dull, switched on — or — switched off.
- On page 126 the author mentions the sun and blue skies for the first time. I think this must represent that the narrator has finally emerged from his dream layerd world and is ready to proceed into the future.
Symbol: morse code
- The narrator is always waiting for morse code ( pg 10 – 40 – 114 – 124.). This is the information from the past.
- He decodes these signals with his ‘carnet noir’ (little black book) so he can understand what he experienced in the confusion of the past.
I must add a question I received from Claire at Word by Word. I enjoy Claire’s commentary about literary style, her thoughts about woman’s fiction, female writers and books worth reading ‘from translation’.
Question: Sounds a bit like Murakami though I am sure it is not. I like all your descriptions and analysis of what the book is, but it doesn’t tell me why you thought it was amazing. Can you expand on what it was about the book that made you give it 5 stars? What buttons did it push for you?
Answer: Claire, that is a great question and I have been thinking about the book during my 5k run this morning. During the narrative Modiano ‘glides’ effortlessly into the past without the reader noticing. Suddenly Jean sees a writer he admires so much coming out of Hotel Taranne. He hears a voice behind him shout: “Jacques!…”. The narrator turns around and tells us I would love to shake his hand, Now, it turns out the hotel does not exist anymore,and the reader still has to figure out who Jacques is! Modiano only gives you the clue that one of his poems is titled ‘Dannie’. (pg 105) . The book was filled with clever clues, allusions together with an ‘elusive’ storyline. To be honest, I felt like Alice in Wonderland while reading the book. What is real and what is memory?
- This was the strangest book I have EVER read.
- It took many hours to piece together the thoughts of Modiano.
- I took notes 14 pages of notes while reading. ( A-4 written on both sides!).
- After many hours I came to the conclusion that the author was re-reading his own notes from a “carnet noir”
- The most frustrating part of the book was trying to discover when the main character Jean was slipping into his “dream world’ and when he was in the present.
- Strong point: Modiano’s use of a narrator is to emphasize the issues of memory/time/space – capture the emotion of the moment – find the past and try to relive it in the present
- Strong point: Modiano uses the contrast between light and darkness to represent feeling of the present and past.
- Last thoughts:
- The most striking image was:
- ‘a light still shining in an empty room”.
- ….you forgot to switch off the light in another life……..or perhaps someone is still waiting for you. ( pg 169)
- Modiano’s writing is sheer genius.
- He wants to slip through the ‘cracks’ of time where no one can reach him. ( pg 133)
- This book is available in Dutch, Spanish and German. I hope it will be translated into English very soon…..it is amazing!
- Coup de coeur!