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Patrick Modiano: Du plus loin de l’oubli (Out of the Dark )

We are, as is usual with Modiano, in familiar territory though, as we shall see, there are a couple of deviations from the Modiano norm later in the book. We have a naive young man in Paris, presumably based, at least in part, on Modiano himself. He is estranged from his parents and has abandoned his studies. He makes his living selling books to bookshops but, inevitably, is hard up. He meets some strange people who seem to be engaged in somewhat dubious activities. He also meets a mysterious young woman, who he will fall for. The while story is told from way in the future – in this case thirty years. However, he claims the events happened thirty years ago and he is writing in 1995. As we shall see, this cannot be. The mysterious woman disappears from his life but he often thinks about her. He will visit the places in Paris associated with her and comment how much they have changed.

Our narrator – as usual, he is never named – bumps into a mysterious couple in the streets of Paris. They are Gérard Van Bever and Jacqueline. It is not clear if they are married but they are certainly living together. Gérard makes his money by gambling. He has a system which allows him to win small amounts. He regularly goes up to Dieppe and other Normandy towns where he gambles. The three become friends but there is still a certain distance between them. For example they continue to use the vous in conversation.

On occasions Gérard will go to Normandy on his own and our narrator, who has now fallen for the lovely and mysterious Jacqueline, is instructed to look after her. He learns little about her, only where she was born (a Paris suburb), the fact that she claims that she cannot do without Gérard and her aim in life (to go and live in Majorca, where they know a US writer, William McGivern who befriended them.) Indeed she wants to earn enough money to go there. Of him, we know that he wants to be writer and he tells Jacqueline this.

A mysterious man, Pierre Cartaud, seems to become friendly with Gérard and Jacqueline and our narrator gets to meet him. He seems to be a dentist but like any good Modiano mystery man, may not not be one but is almost certainly up to something dubious. He also seems to be attracted to Jacqueline. With our narrator as the naive but willing partner and Gérard out of the way in Normandy, Jacqueline hatches a plan to steal some money from Pierre Cartaud. Jacqueline and our narrator then flee to London.

Inevitably it rains all the time in London (average annual rainfall in London: 23 inches; annual average rainfall in Paris: 25 inches) and the pair are miserable. Our narrator speaks English, Jacqueline barely. In a café, they meet Linda Jacobsen and she tells them that she has a friend that can help. This is where it gets interesting and a variation from the Modiano norm. The person she introduces them to is a very real person – Peter Rachman. Those British people of a certain age will well remember Rachman who became the poster boy for the archetypical slum landlord.

Modiano was in London in 1960 and may well have met Rachman. If not he will have heard of him. In this book Rachman seems to be very generous to Jacqueline and our narrator, putting them up free of charge in a flat and giving them money. He even takes our narrator on a tour of his properties which are, indeed, slums. However, we see him hitting Linda in public when she is consorting with a Jamaican musician, as he considers her his property.

Our narrator decides to write a novel about Rachman (this book?) and carries out some research. Rachman is a notorious womaniser (we even get a description of his sexual technique). Jacqueline seems to spend her time with him rather than with our narrator.

As mentioned, this book is written, according to the narrator, thirty years after the book. As it is written in 1995, thirty years previous to this date would be 1965, three years after the death of Rachman so, in fact, it must have been well over thirty years ago.

The book then jumps first to the present, i.e. 1995 and then looks back some fifteen years previous to that date, i.e. 1979. Our narrator is living in Paris and, one day, he is sure that he sees Jacqueline, whom he has not seen since the events of London. He follows her and sees her entering block of flats but which one?

This is another fine book by Modiano. The events remain shrouded in mystery and, reading the book, it was like watching a French black and white film, featuring Jean Gabin, his raincoat collar turned up, a Gauloise hanging out of his mouth. You are never quite sure what is going on. Having historical characters in the book – Justin de Blank also puts in an appearance – and three different eras instead of the usual two adds to the book. But as always, we are never quite sure if we really know what happened.

First published 1995 by Gallimard
First published in English by University of Nebraska Press in 1998
Translated by Jordan Stump