Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Invisible Ink

While on the plane ride from New York City to San Diego for the recently concluded Bouchercon, I read a Patrick Modiano novel, my seventh, called Invisible Ink. Like many of his books, it's in large part about memory and uses detective story tropes. 

The plot goes like this. It is years ago, and young narrator Jean Eyben works for the Hutte Detective Agency in Paris. He receives an assignment to locate a woman named Noelle Lefebvre. She's missing. Jean starts an investigation into her life, talking to people who know her, getting access to her apartment, but the case goes nowhere. Eyeben doesn't find Noelle Lefebvre. He does discover clues about her life, though, and these tidbits, for some reason not entirely defined, haunt him. They nag at his mind for decades. About thirty years later, fed up with the scraps of memory that bother him, he picks up the investigation for himself, revisiting old sites and tracking down people who knew Noelle Lefebvre or had dealings of any kind with her. In effect, for reasons he cannot fully articulate, he feels what amounts to a compulsion to find her and to understand once and for all the truth behind this compulsion.

Years ago, I remember reading a piece about how certain novels you get assigned to read in school -- middle school, high school -- great though they may be, are not books anyone of a young age is likely to fully appreciate. There could be several reasons you might not appreciate a novel you're assigned to read in school, but what this piece focused on was how certain novels require a depth of experience in the reader. Or, let's put it this way: there are particular books one will appreciate more the longer one has lived and the more one has experienced. This seems obvious, but I don't think it's always obvious in the most obvious way. Take Modiano, for example. He's not a writer who composes long, slow books. I don't think, among his 40-odd books, that he has one that's over 250 pages. And he uses very evocative but essentially straightforward language, eschewing linguistic games. His plots often revolve around a mystery or a series of enigmas, drawing upon not only crime fiction but also, at times, espionage fiction and other popular forms. He is, in a nutshell, extremely readable. And yet, I am glad I came to him relatively late in life, not when young, because I don't think I would have liked his work much if I'd read it when young.

In large part, this is because his obsessive focus in book after book is memory. Not nostalgia -- his books are not about that at all -- but memory itself, its workings and gaps, its illusions, how it can absorb so much of one's life, how it changes over time and influences a person in the present. If I like Modiano so much, it's obviously because I too, over time, have become more interested in memory and how it works and have come to comprehend how much of it is uncertain in your mind, even deceptive. He's a writer who, I think, despite how easy he is to read, has a richness that someone with an accumulation of experience will most appreciate. He fully comprehends how misty the past becomes the farther you get from it, and this is something you're not likely to fully grasp if you are, say, twenty years old.

Here's a passage from Invisible Ink that I like:

"I'm trying to set down in black and white, as precisely as possible, the words we exchanged that day. But many of them have vanished. All those lost words, some of which you spoke yourself, others that you heard but have forgotten, and still others that were addressed to you but to which you paid no attention...And sometimes, on waking, or very late at night, the memory of a sentence returns from the past, but you don't know who whispered it."

Memory itself becomes the mystery and you are the investigator of it, the better to, as Jean Eyben might say, understand yourself. Modiano is, as a blurb on the back of my copy of Invisible Ink says, "an excavator of memory", but what I have come to love about his writing, which I wouldn't have loved when much younger, is that he treads in an area full of questions and uncertainties where it's far from certain there will be definitive closure. He uses mystery tropes because (aside from clearly liking them) they suit the investigative nature of his plots, but also because they help him establish how much of life is made up of unresolved, or semi-resolved, mysteries. I'm sure I'll always enjoy a good mystery with a puzzle and a definitive solution. But as I've gotten older, I've come to find more and more true a notion in contrast to the idea of puzzle and solution. It's a notion that Modiano explores relentlessly. As another comment on the Invisible Ink book jacket puts it, Modiano's world is one where things for the most part must be inferred and precious little can be proved. I wouldn't have agreed with this notion when I was twenty; I do now.

Seven books read by Modiano, and I'm just glad he's been prolific. Plenty more of his books for me to read, when the mood strikes.

1 comment:

Michael Blanton said...

I've read two Modiano novels, so far. Both follow a similar pattern to Invisible Ink, the first, The Black notebook, an individual - fifty years later - searches for someone from their past, whom they knew in the aftermath of the the Algerian war. The second, Missing Person, an individual with a decade of amnesia attempts, to figure out who he is, in pursuit of the identity he lost in the murky days of the Paris Occupation.

Both excellent, just picked up his Occupation Trilogy and Suspended Sentences, another trilogy of novellas, set during the occupation. Looking forward to reading them.

Excellent article, Scott.