Book ReviewsFrench authorsNobel Prize for Literature

Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano

Paris 1960sPatrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne doesn’t merely convey atmosphere; it oozes forth in every section, every page, every paragraph.  Dreamlike, mysterious, unsettling; this is a book that begins with a puzzle and ends without answers. In between Modiano adds layer upon layer of obscurity.

Paris Nocturne opens with an accident. The unnamed narrator, a young man in his early twenties,  is knocked down by a car near the Place des Pyramides. His journey to hospital is in the company of the driver whose name he overhears while waiting for treatment.  By the time he comes round she and her male companion have disappeared, leaving an envelope stuffed full of banknotes as the only sign they existed.

Waking in a strange hospital he thinks he’s encountered the woman driver somewhere previously. She looks like a woman who looked after him as a child. But he’s not sure if his memory is genuine or the hallucinatory effect of a dose of ether. He sets out to track her down, driven not simply by a desire to piece together the events of that night but by a feeling she has answers to the many questions he has wrestled with all his life. Questions which often involve the father from whom he became estranged; a father he suspects was up to something distinctively shady. If he can find her, he reasons, every part of his life will somehow all make sense.

Port de Vannes, Paris

His search takes him on a meandering journey through deserted streets, across moonlit squares and into the cafes and bars of Paris. He makes an odd looking figure in his bloodied coat and bandaged foot but his attempts to solve the mystery are hampered less by his injuries than by his confusion about what is real and what he has truly recalled or merely imagined.

At times past and present seem to blend:

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.

That sense of a shrinking life resonates through the novel. This man has been a drifter for much of his life, hanging around cafés, eavesdropping on philosophical discussions led by a shifty guru-like figure, and engaging in unromantic liaisons with girl friends.  Now thirty years later, reaching “an age  at which, little by little, life begins to close in on itself” he regrets his many lost opportunities.

In the streets at night, I had the impression I was living another life, a more captivating one, or quite simply, that I was dreaming another life.

His explorations into the past don’t bring answers but serve only to further disorientate and dislocate him from the present. Appropriately for a novella of unanswered questions, one of the last lines is: “I think there’s something you’re hiding from me” which is how readers could well feel by the time they get to the end.

It’s a strange novel for sure, rather confusing but with a dreamlike quality that keeps you reading more. And if your attention ever wanders, you could just get out a map of Paris and plot our narrator’s night time meanderings through the quarters of the city. Be warned however; just like the narrator you may end up in more than a few blind alleys.

End Notes
Paris NocturneParis Nocturne by Patrick Modiano was first published under the title Accident Nocturne in 2003
This new edition translated in English by Phoebe Weston-Evans is published by Yale University Press. My copy came courtesy of the publishers via NetGalley.

Patrick Modiano was named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Given the way Paris Nocturne invokes the sense of the city, it’s interesting to see that the speech awarding him the prize, commented on how his work had  “endowed the past with entrancing life and his Parisian cityscape with a singular voice. Magnificently, his work instantiates what an earlier Nobel Laureate,Seamus Heaney, called “the poetry of place”.



What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

19 thoughts on “Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano

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  • Oh, I love the sound of this one! Now I’ve read a few, the outline sounds ‘very Modiano’, but different…

  • I am drawn to all things Paris and since I will be visiting next month I must thank you for making me aware of this novel. I knew Modiano won the Nobel Prize but have never noticed any of his work in translation. Again, thank you for the eye-opening review!

    • i think the publishers brought out some new English editions after he won the prize. I had difficulty getting anything last year but there are more around now. Have a wonderful time in Paris – should look lovely in the autumn colours

  • Sounds pretty interesting and a little odd too. I have not read Modiano, would this be a good one to try first?

    • It’s my first experience of him Stephanie so hard to say whether this would be a place to begin. From what I’ve read about him and some of the other commenters here, it seems that you’ll find the same themes in most of his books.

  • I don’t know why, but at the moment I seem to need novels that tell a straightforward story in a straightforward way. Perhaps there is too much else going on in my life for me to want complicated narratives, I don’t know, but I don’t think this is a writer I could find much sympathy with at the moment.

    • You’ll be steering away from this year’s Booker prize winner then – 40+ narrative voices and quite a lot of dialect would make it rather complex a read it seems.

  • I read my first Modiano a few weeks ago – So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood. From your review I’d say it shares the same themes of memory and loss, asking many more questions than it answers. His writing – and the translation – is beautiful but I suspect I’ll only read one or two more.

    • I have one more by him to read – if the same themes come up again which is what I sense is the case, it could be that I’ll call a halt at that point too Susan

  • I really like the sound of the dreamlike quality of this novel. Of all Modiano novels I’ve seen, this is the one I would most like to read.

    • the cover as much as anything was what drew me to this Jacqui

  • I’ve only read one Modiano (the new translation of ‘After the Circus’), but it looks like there are certain things I should start to expect in all his books . ‘After the Circus’ also contained a mysterious woman, a shady, estranged father and lots of wandering around Paris…

    • Im not familiar with his work – Paris Nocturne was actually my first experience – but it seems there are recurring themes, particularly around memory.

  • Excellent review. I’ve read a little Modiano and I’m not 100% convinced – I need to find more than just nostalgia and atmosphere in his books!

    • This was my first Modiano. I have another The Search Warrant. it was one of the few I could get in English at a reasonable price last year

      • Search Warrant is the one I read – it was good but from the attempts I’ve made to start other works of his I sense they may lapse into the similar…

        • Hmmm, i think in that case I’ll wait a while before tackling Search Warrant.

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