Paris Nocturne

An excerpt

Patrick Modiano

Illustration by Cody Cobb

I was having trouble sleeping. I was tempted to go and ask the pharmacist for one of the midnight-blue vials of ether I knew so well. But I stopped myself in time. It wasn't the moment to give in. I had to remain as lucid as possible. During those sleepless nights, what I regretted most was having left all my books in my room on Rue de la Voie-Verte. There weren't many bookshops in the area. I walked towards l'Étoile to find one. I bought some detective novels and an old second-hand book, the title of which intrigued me: The Wonders of the Heavens. To my great surprise, I couldn't bring myself to read detective novels anymore. But hardly had I opened The Wonders of the Heavens, which bore on its first page the words 'Night reading', than I realised just how much this book was going to mean to me. Nebula. The Milky Way. The Sidereal World. The Northern Constellations. The Zodiac, Distant Universes . . . As I read through the chapters, I no longer even knew why I was lying on that bed in that hotel room. I had forgotten where I was, which country, which city, and none of it mattered anymore. No drug, not ether or morphine or opium, could have given me that sense of calm, which gradually engulfed me. All I had to do was turn the pages. This 'night reading' should have been recommended to me a long time ago. It would have spared me much pointless suffering and many restless nights. The Milky Way. The Sidereal World. Finally, the horizon stretched out infinitely before me and I felt utterly content looking at stars from afar and trying to make out all the variable, temporary, extinguished or faded stars. I was nothing in this infinity, but I could finally breathe.

Was it the influence of my reading? When I walked around the neighbourhood at night, I continued to feel a sense of fulfilment. All my anxiety was gone. I had been freed from some kind of suffocating restraint. My leg didn't hurt anymore. The bandage had come undone and was dangling from my shoe. The wound was healing. The neighbourhood took on an aspect that was different from when I first arrived. For a few nights the sky was so clear that I could see more stars than ever before. Or perhaps I hadn't noticed them until then. But now I had read The Wonders of the Heavens.

My walks often led to the Trocadéro esplanade. At least one could breathe the ocean air there. This zone now seemed to be crisscrossed by large avenues that one could reach from the Seine via gardens, sequences of stairways and walkways that looked like country paths. The light from the streetlamps was more and more dazzling. I was surprised that there were no cars parked along the kerb. Every avenue was deserted, and it would be easy for me to spot the sea-green Fiat from a distance. Perhaps parking in the area had been prohibited for the past few nights. They had decided that from then on the neighbourhood would be what they called a 'blue zone.' And I was the only pedestrian. Had a curfew been brought in which forbade people from going out after eleven o'clock at night? But I didn't care: it was as if I had a special pass in the pocket of my sheepskin jacket, which exempted me from police checks.

One night, a dog followed me from Pont de l'Alma to the Trocadéro esplanade. It was the same black colouring and the same breed as the one that had been hit by a car in my childhood. I walked up the avenue on the right-hand side. At first, the dog stayed about ten metres behind me and then gradually it came closer. By the time we reached the railings of the Galliera Gardens, we were walking side by side. I don't know where I'd read—perhaps in a footnote in The Wonders of the Heavens—that at certain hours of the night, you can slip into a parallel world: an empty apartment where the light wasn't switched off, even a small dead-end street. It's where you find objects lost long ago: a lucky charm, a letter, an umbrella, a key, and cats, dogs, and horses that were lost over the course of your life. I thought that dog was the one from Rue du Docteur-Kurzenne.

It wore a red leather collar with a metal tag and, when I bent down, I saw a phone number engraved on it. With a collar, you'd think twice about taking it to the pound. As for me, I still kept an old, out-of-date passport in the inside pocket of my sheepskin jacket. I had fudged the date of birth to make myself older, and so it looked like I was twenty-one. For the past few nights, however, I no longer feared police checks. Reading The Wonders of the Heavens had lifted my spirits. From then on, I considered things from high above.

The dog walked in front of me. At first, it looked around to check that I was following, and then it walked at a steady pace, certain I would follow. I walked at the same slow pace as the dog. Nothing interrupted the silence. Grass seemed to be growing in between the cobblestones. Time had ceased.

It must have been what Bouvière called the 'eternal return.' The façades of buildings, the trees, the glimmer of the street-lamps took on an intensity that I had never seen in them before.

The dog hesitated for a moment when I turned onto the Trocadéro esplanade. It seemed to want to continue straight ahead. It ended up following me. I paused for a while to look at the gardens below, the big pool where the water appeared phosphorescent and, beyond the Seine, the apartment buildings along the quays and around the Champ-de-Mars.

I thought of my father. I imagined him over there, in a room somewhere, or in a café, just before closing time, sitting alone under the neon lights, looking through his files. Perhaps there was still a chance I would find him. After all, time had been abolished, given that this dog had emerged from the depths of the past, from Rue du Docteur-Kurzenne. I watched the dog move away from me, as though it would soon have to leave me or it might miss another engagement. I followed. It walked alongside the façade of the Musée de l'Homme and started down Rue Vineuse. I'd never been down this road. If the dog was leading me there, it wasn't by chance. I had the feeling of both arriving at my destination and returning to familiar ground. But there was no light from the windows and I walked along in half-darkness. I moved closer to the dog so I wouldn't lose sight of it. Silence surrounded us. I could hear the sound of my footsteps. The road turned almost at a right angle and I thought it would come out near La Closerie de Passy where, at that hour, the parrot in its cage would be repeating, Sea-green Fiat, sea-green Fiat, for no reason, while the manager and her friends played cards. After the angle in the road, an unlit sign. A restaurant or, rather, a bar, closed. It was Sunday. What an odd place for a bar: the pale wooden shopfront and sign would have been better suited to the Champs-Élysées or Pigalle.

I stopped for a moment and tried to decipher the sign above the entrance: Vol de Nuit. Then I looked ahead for the dog. I couldn't see it. I hurried to catch up. But there was no trace of it. I ran and came out at the crossroads on Boulevard Delessert. The streetlamps were so bright they made me squint. No dog to be seen, not on the pavement that ran downhill, not on the other side of the boulevard, not opposite me near the little metro station and the steps that led down to the Seine. The light was white, the brightness of the northern lights: the black dog would have been visible from a distance. But it had disappeared. I felt a sensation of emptiness with which I was familiar and which I had forgotten for a few days, thanks to the calming effect of reading The Wonders of the Heavens. I regretted not having made a note of the phone number on the dog's collar.

translated from the French by Phoebe Weston-Evans

Used by permission of The Text Publishing Company. Paris Nocturne will be out in stores on 29 July 2015.

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