Patrick Modiano relies heavily on symbols throughout Out of the Dark. Some of these symbols are quite obvious, like the use of the clock, while others are more subtle. These more subtle symbols normally double as plot devices. As the symbols, and the details surrounding them, progress through the book, they get increasingly more interesting. Drugs also play a huge role in the book, especially how they are presented to the senses. Through Out of the Dark, both the drugs and their representation change. When the narrator first meets Jacqueline, she is smoking.
The narrator describes her as “absently, smoking a cigarette.. and said in her slightly gravelly voice” (pg. 21-22). This is quite odd considering that she wasn’t mentioned coughing and has a gravelly voice, presumably from smoking, yet the next time she smokes she coughs profusely (this becomes an important detail later on in the book). After the initial meeting, she coughs whenever she smokes, until the reunion later in the book. This is almost certainly not a coincidence, since every other time she smokes either her coughing or lack thereof is mentioned.
Most readers do not atch this detail on their first or even second read. No one thinks back to the first pages of the book when they are reading the final ones. Even the narrator doesn’t think back that far when he notices that Jacqueline no longer coughs when she smokes. Jacqueline, on the other hand, seems totally unperturbed by that fact. There are two possible reasons for this: she’s learned to not cough or she’s never actually needed to cough. The first is what most readers assume, though the second has merit.
Back when the narrator was with Jacqueline, she was a heavy ether user, a substance known to cause lung amage1, which could have contributed a little. What is even more likely is that she was simply making a new persona. Jacqueline and Van Bever make a living lying. In Out of the Dark we see Jacqueline with at least four men, putting on a slightly different personality for each. For the narrator, Jacqueline simply made coughing and ether a large part of her identity. When Jacqueline finally leaves the narrator, he doesn’t seem surprised.
In the pages leading up to her disappearance, the clues get less and less subtle, but on a first read it seems the clues only show up shortly before she leaves. The fact that the narrator remembers the tiny details, though, means that he, and by extension the reader, have been seeing the signs of Jacqueline’s leaving from the beginning. At the very start, the clues are non-existent, since the narrator is totally in love. As it progresses the clue get more obvious, though it seems the narrator is trying to ignore them, not putting the puzzle pieces together until the very end, like he is denial of Jacqueline’s inevitable betrayal.
In Paris, the narrator does ether. The book starts in Jacqueline and Van Bever’s room, coming back to it for ost of the first half of the book, and ether is mentioned at the start. The room is described as always having the smell of ether hanging in the air, pillows, and bed, though it’s cause isn’t revealed until later. When the narrator finally learns that Jacqueline is a fan of ether, he acts like he knew it the whole time, even though he initially attributed her constant coughing (not the cigarette coughing, though) to a cold.
These little curiosities at first seem like an oversight on Modiano’s part, little inconsistencies that no one should notice, but they reveal something much deeper about the narrator. When he lived with Jacqueline, his mind was so used to the smell of ether and the sound of coughing those details got blocked out, similar to the way city folk block out the noise of traffic. The narrator has supposedly forgotten the faces of his own parents, so it seems strange that he would remember such a background detail like the smell of a room, but it isn’t minor to him. Ether and Jacqueline are so entwined in his mind as to be one.
In his mind, the room doesn’t just smell like ether, it smells like Jacqueline. He starts off telling this story the way he remembers it, making onnections that are hard to see from outside his world, and skipping over points that are only obvious to him. As he speaks, he gets better at telling the story, as if he has not told a story in a long time and is slowly getting used to it again. London brings us a different set of drugs, ranging from marijuana to alcohol. When in London, the drugs are described much more passively, either from their smell, or simply who uses them.
This contrasts to Paris, where each drug’s description would also include what he associated that drug with, and how he felt about it. For xample, on page 128 when Jacqueline (now Therese) lights a cigarette, all that is said is that she lights it. He discusses coughing with her, but the reader hears nothing of the narrator’s thoughts on the subject. Near the start of the narrator’s adventures in London, it is mentioned that Linda’s apartment smells of marijuana, but that is it. Back in Paris, that would have evoked at least a short tangent from the narrator. Each and every sensation was new and exciting, even if it was illegal.
The smells, sensations, thoughts, and feeling were all foreign, and therefore interesting. By the end, the narrator has seen just about everything there is to see, and isn’t surprised by much anymore. The drugs are symbolic of the callous that the narrator has built against the “real world”. At first, we do not hear the details because the narrator forgets that they exist, yet now we do not hear them because we have lived in the narrator’s world so long. There have been enough drugs and people that we too block out the little things. Out of the Dark is an interesting book, simply because it does not follow normal convention.
Modiano realizes this, and uses it to his full advantage. This creates an interesting effect, one that propagates the importance of symbolism and imagery. It is not perfect, though. Sometimes the nuances are dug so deep into the text that it requires two or three readings to understand. Without the proper mindset, Out of the Dark seems to be a well written book with a laughable lack of plot and unlikable characters. As one of Modiano’s later books, it could even be seen as a bad attempt at a money grab. This is, however, a horrible misunderstanding. Just because the symbols are well hidden doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
It’s nuanced nature akes it easy to dismiss, and haphazard style lends itself to criticism, but at this time it also key to remember that it was written in a culture much different than the anglophone one most readers of the translation were used to. When Modiano won the Nobel prize in 2008, he was virtually unknown outside of France, despite having a relatively large French following. His other novels are similar in writing and plot style, one not uncommon in that part of the world. It is sometimes refreshing to read a genuinely interesting book that doesn’t necessarily follow normal convention.