There is a comic strip by graphic artist and cartoonist, Jan Stenmark, where two happy men sit at a table on a construction site and one of them holds up a book for the other. Under the picture, it says: “The important thing is between the lines, maybe not even in this book but a completely different one, he explained.”
It’s meant as a joke, of course, but I can’t help but think that that actually applies to some books. In my last post here at Lange Times, I wrote about art that sometimes seems to point beyond what we know, then about the pianist Ludovico Einaudi’s fantastic music. Today I am going further on the subject and by my side, I have a book that fits well with the quote above.
It is about Nätternas gräs by Patrick Modiano (in Swedish at Grate Bokförlag, 2015). The novel’s narrator Jean wanders the back streets of Paris in a patient search for a woman named Dannie, a woman he once loved. He visits night cafes, meets people on the fringes of society, reads old address books, and considers his city based on memories and a notebook full of scribbles.
The entire novel seems to take place elsewhere in parallel. There’s something about the language, all the Paris addresses and all the loose notes of old business names in courtyards and back streets; Beaugency tanneries, Firma A. Martin Raw leather, Paris leather halls. Overall, it creates a sense of unreality and timelessness. The narrator moves into today’s Paris at the same time as he moves into the Paris of his youth and it all flows together into a kind of liquid dream state.
However, everything is very factually described. And perhaps it is precisely the exactness that gives the feeling that something is hidden. The narrator meets four men in a night cafe; “Paul Chastagnier, Gérard Marciano, Duwelz, and Aghamouri “. Mysterious men who once knew they wanted Dannie and whose four names are repeated like a rhyme in the novel; “Paul Chastagnier, Gérard Marciano, Duwelz, Aghamouri “.
I read this novel for the first time when I was working nights and I sometimes forgot where I was in the book. Pretty soon, though, I realized that it didn’t matter that much. I would let the reading pick up somewhere where I thought I had closed the book last, but usually realized I had already read that section. It did not matter. It was a flow to descend in. I cannot compare this novel to any other I have read, not even to Modiano’s other novels. In addition to its literary qualities, I would like to argue that this little book of 136 pages is also art, in the same sense as Ludovico Einaudi’s music can be art.
The riddle is never resolved in Nätternas gräs, itself a nice liberation from the whole crime genre which seems to be locked in a template. We don’t know if Jean will ever find Dannie (probably not), but we do know that he will continue to wander in Paris with his tattered notebook in his pocket, floating between the present and the past. It is a book to be discovered again and again and every time I read it I am filled with a strong longing to descend into Modiano’s flow again.
Mattias Kvick is an Author and Illustrator