English-language readers will be pleased to hear that in 2016 another of Patrick Modiano’s novels has been translated from French and is available in the UK. If, like me, and my Audible followers, you have become addicted to Modiano’s writing then this next one should be a real treat. The original French version, called L’herbe des nuits has been around in paperback, at least, since May 2014, its literal translation would have been, well, Nights’ Grass, Night Grasses, the story itself holds a clue as the narrator searches for the lost words of a manuscript from the 1960s, one is put in mind of the lines from a poem by Mandelstam:
What pain - hunting for the lost word, lifting these sore eyelids, And, with lime in your blood, gathering night grasses for alien tribes From Osip Mandelstam's poem 'January 1, 1924'
But my interest is that Modiano’s novel may unlock literary tourism to the book’s opening location in Paris, the secret but ever-changing backstreets of Montparnasse.
In the opening lines from Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1945) Age of Reason, the same area of Montparnasse sets the backdrop for the action as the main character is introduced:
‘Au milieu de la rue Vercingétorix, un grand type saisit Mathieu par le bras’ ‘HALF-WAY down the Rue Vercingétorix, a tall man seized Mathieu by the arm’
The narrow street called Rue Vercingétorix is still there, on my photograph you can pinpoint it. Looking south along Avenue du Maine, Rue Vercingétorix starts in the cluster of brown buildings and cuts behind the tall white Paris Pullman Hotel in centre of picture, emerging onto the roundabout of the Plaisance where the circular building can be seen, out on the right of the image. In two of my lifetimes I have stayed in and explored this area, the first when the huge hotel was still owned by Le Méridien, a brand created by Air France in 1972. This airline ownership explains why Les cars Air France, those white coaches, would bring me direct from the terminal buildings at Roissy-CDG to the hotel without taking the RER.
Modiano’s novel, The Black Notebook, provides readers with even more tantalising clues to locations that can still be found today. In particular look for the building at number 11, rue d’Odessa where Modiano’s character, Paul Chastagnier, used to park his red Lancia before walking round into the next street to the Unic Hotel at 56, rue du Montparnasse, 75014 Paris. With so many characters staying at the Unic, including Jean, the narrator and his heroine, Dannie, I am sure the current owners will be re-theming their rooms and foyer for Modiano enthusiasts, gathering in night grasses for those alien tribes who read his novels in English. To end on some French for today, here is Mandelstam’s verse translated from its original Russian:
Quelle douleur - chercher la parole perdue, Relever ces paupières douloureuses Et, la chaux dans le sang, rassembler pour les tribus étrangères L'herbe des nuits.