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A Conversation with Patrick Modiano

The latest work from Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano, Invisible Ink is a spellbinding tale of memory and its illusions. Private detective Jean Eyben receives an assignment to locate a missing woman, the mysterious Noëlle Lefebvre. While the case proves fruitless, the clues Jean discovers along the way continue to haunt him. Three decades later, he resumes the investigation for himself, revisiting old sites and tracking down witnesses, compelled by reasons he can’t explain to follow the cold trail and discover the shocking truth once and for all.

Released this fall, the English translation by Mark Polizzotti has been hailed as “mesmerizing” (Publishers Weekly) and “enchanting” (Ploughshares). This interview, conducted by the French publisher Gallimard and translated by Sophia Helverson, is a rare glimpse into Modiano’s imaginative process.

G: The title, Invisible Ink, evokes memories that gradually appear, filling up the blank page of the forgotten. But you also refer to the memories that visit you “like a blackmailer.” In remembering, is there a kind of curse or maliciousness? 

M: These are the two contradictory functions that have always stood out to me with respect to memory, because I find them to be a great source of suspense from a narrative perspective. On the one hand, a long-buried memory that suddenly resurfaces is like invisible ink that appears on the page after it is chemically treated. On the other hand, an unpleasant memory that seemed to have been erased with time, but which reappears like a blackmailer, shows us that we are at the mercy of certain “silences” in our memory. But these silences risk rupturing one day or another.  

G: Most of your characters prove to be very ordinary. Is this a way to show that as time passes, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, or is the narrator so obsessed with his search that he imagines that the people he studies must have done outstanding things? 

M: It’s not just the characters who turn out to be very banal beneath their air of mystery. I intended to reveal that the narrator too, throughout his quest and research into “Noëlle Lefebvre,” believed that these were important witnesses to this woman’s past, whereas she herself scarcely could recall these alleged “witnesses” in her life. 

G: You poke fun at the supposed omnipotence of the internet, this so-called “infinite memory” that often finds itself incapable of any response. 

M: I have often found that the internet cannot respond in any direct way to a question that is too precise, as if it were deliberately taking you for a ride. So, you have to find an indirect way of getting your answer. There are many large gaps in this so-called “Memory of the World.”  

G: In the second part of the novel, we move from Paris to Rome, and at the same time the “I” becomes “he.” Why this narrative shift?

M: I wanted this shift to indicate the moment when everything begins to become clearer, like the revelation of the invisible ink. 

G: Without excessive optimism, the novel can be read to conclude with a “happy ending,” even if this ending looks like a question mark.

M: I absolutely agree with this perspective; that’s what the last line of the novel suggests: “She would explain everything to him.” This phrase gives the reader the freedom to imagine.

This translated interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Patrick Modiano is one of France’s most acclaimed contemporary novelists, and winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. Mark Polizzotti has translated more than fifty books from the French, including nine others by Modiano.

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