Monday, 29 July 2019

The Black Notebook

Night Grasses

 - English-language readers will be pleased to hear that in 2016 another of Patrick Modiano’s novels was translated from French and is available in the UK. If, like me, and Subscribers to this blog, you have become addicted to Modiano’s writing then this 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'

Literary Tourism

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 the centre of my 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 

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.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Updating my web-site for the new academic year

Just back from fieldwork in Paris, where I went to watch progress on that important tourist site, Notre Dame. You can just see in my photograph the scaffolding around the missing spire, which was only added around 1844 by Viollet-le-Duc to replace the one removed in 1786.  Also did some reconnaissance work at The Hôtel de Lauzun, on the quai d'Anjou of the île Saint-Louis; this private mansion house was designed by  Charles Chamois in 1667.

Now updating my web-site in preparation for the new academic year. Please take a look at the new links from there to teaching resources and research publications.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Masters in Travel Writing

The Masters for Travel Writers and Bloggers 

The Masters programme for travel writers and bloggers is now open for applications for the new academic year at the University of Plymouth. You can study part-time over two years with just a few visits per year to Plymouth in Devon. You can continue your professional role or job-hunting while you complete your research degree at masters level. Also visit eserve for information.

Google Photos Album from our Travel Writing Fieldwork

See our whole Google Album at

Saturday, 12 April 2014


After visitng Concarneau I must admit the town looks nothing like I expected. Today it is not the quaint small fishing village that Simenon describes back in the early 1930’s. Quite the opposite, it is much bigger and less provincial. Yet this is not what surprised me the most. Modernisation can easily cause this to happen. What shocked me the most was that the town is “upside down”. Quai de l’Aiguillon lays to the left of the Hotel Admiral why I expected it to be on its right. And the Admiral hotel itself faces the wrong direction.

The old watch tower at Cabelou was another surprise. I had imagined an old abandoned tower not far out from the city. On the other hand when we made the trip out to visit it we found it to be much further away than anticipated. The abandoned fort, unlike how I had anticipated, was relatively big and a small house shaped building lay on the inside of it. The tower itself on the other hand much smaller that expected. Despite it not reflecting what I had imagined the walk out to Cabelou Point and the visit to the Fort were probably my favourite part of the trip. Sitting on the rocks overlooking the sea and the Glenan Islands, the fort had a magical atmosphere about it. Maybe this was because our visit there was accompanied by the beautiful musical notes made by two locals who were playing their instruments out there in the forest. I nearly felt bad intruding on them.

Having imagined the town Simenon depicts in the novel and seen the Concarneau one can find today, the two are very different. Yet this was no great disappointment. After all I believe that books are made to remain in the imaginary. An author does not write them so we can un-pick them and analyse them word for word. Maybe when writing The Yellow Dog  and describing Concarneau Simenon did not remain fully truthful to the towns layout. But after all he wrote a novel not a travel guide. The locations he describes serve the purpose of creating the setting necessary for The Yellow Dog mystery to unfold. In no way do I fell that was the trip disappointing because of this or the novel less enjoyable.


I arrived at Brittany Ferry’s port at 9 o’clock on the dot. The satisfaction of having arrived on time was short lived. I immediately realised that I had forgotten my passport. After spending all afternoon preparing for this trip. Tying up all the loose ends. Getting all my work out of the way. Packing the right things and making sure that everything was in order before departure. And yet throughout the whole day it never even crossed my mind to pack my passport. I can honestly say that this has never happened to me before. I like to think that in my disorderly way of going about thing there is always some form of underling structure that ultimately leads to order. Is it not a common saying that “out of chaos comes order”? I was truly disappointed with myself for forgetting my passport. I had spent a good portion of the day going over the novel The Yellow Dog to ensure that I knew the book well enough and that I wouldn’t make a fool out of myself when it came to discussing it. And there I stood in front of Charlie and Denise, bag on my shoulder and laptop in hand, having achieved exactly what I had tried so hard to avoid. I looked like a fool. I had forgotten my passport, the most obvious of things.

I ask myself if the same thing would have happened to inspector Maigret. One of the reasons I engaged so well with the novel is the similarities I found between myself and the inspector. He is sharp-witted and observant. I like to think I share these characteristics with him. But maybe I think a little too highly of myself! Or am I just being too hard on myself! I put the mistake down to the fact that for the first time in a while I haven’t had to organize the trip personally, worry about making the booking or going through an online check-in. Luckily, despite there being little time to spare, I managed to go home, get my passport, and return to the port in time for departure. An hour later, as planned, the ferry set sail for Roscoff.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014


“On Y va!” Tonight we leave for Concarneau. Back to France. It’s my third visit in six months. I truly cannot wait to get back onto the continent. More than anything I have missed mainland Europe’s culture. Moving from Italy to England the cultural difference is quite noticeable. I find it much easier to relate to the French way of doing things than to the English way.

This year with my trip to Brittany in October and to Paris in January, I have had a chance to polish up my French. From the age of eleven I studied the language for three years. To my delight I have found that my communication skills are much better than I thought they would be. Being already bilingual I have always found it easy to get to grips with other languages. My Spanish for example is also quite good. So compared to many people that would struggle placed in this different environment, culture and language I cannot wait to get stuck into it. I truly believe that to understand and thrive in another country “We must learn the culture just as we must learn the language” (Hooker, 2003). The best way of doing this is by engaging with the local community. Everyone is proud of their own cultural identity; I have found that locals are more likely to accept you and open up to you, if they see you making an effort to understand their culture.

This is what I find so appealing about traveling. Not going to visit the main tourist attractions, but engaging with the different cultures. Learning the language and understanding what identifies a different community. Concarneau is perfect for this. Simenon depicts such a vivid portrait of the French village and its people that I cannot wait to find out if the town has remained true to his description. Of course I understand that this is a different time from the one Simenon describes, but is Concarneau still a small village where everyone knows everyone? Will I be able to recognise the regulars, the established customers, in the Admiral Hotel Cafe? Will I still find the weekly market stalls in the square just off the Quai de l’Aiguillon? Our ferry lands in Roscoff tomorrow morning. Before lunch we should be in Concarneau. I guess it won’t be long until I find out.

Hooker, J., 2003. Working across cultures. s.l.: Stanford University Press

Friday, 4 April 2014

Food & Drink

I find one of the most exciting things about travelling to a new destination is discovering the local culture. Cuisine being at the centre of this experience. Maybe it is the Italian in me that makes me place so much importance on food. But wherever I go tasting the local traditional menus is nearly as important as discovering the new surroundings. 

I've already been to Brittany, and I look forward to having lunch in a Creperie again. The region is famous for its galletes or savoury pancakes and the prospect of eating them again, while drinking the local apple ciders, is making me hungry as we speak. As a student I don’t exactly have the most exciting meals. Pasta, chicken and potatoes are usually the order of the day. Well I’ve already decided that my dinners in Concarneau will consist of oysters, lobsters and scallops! 

Off the top of my head not much is mentioned about the local cuisine in The Yellow Dog. I do remember on the other hand Simenon describing that in Concarneau “In the open square stood some fifty stalls, piled with butter, eggs, vegetables …”. Somehow I find the prospect of walking around markets just as appealing as actually enjoy the food. I will be severely disappointed if Concarneau has not kept this tradition.

The Black Notebook

Night Grasses  - English-language readers will be pleased to hear that in 2016 another of Patrick Modiano’s novels was translated from...