Having kicked off Patrick Modiano week on the blog a couple of days ago with a collection of three novellas from the late eighties and early nineties, today I’m going a little further back in the French writer’s career with one of his early works. It’s slightly longer, just about creeping into novel territory, but there’s plenty here that Modiano fans will recognise, even if the style is a little different in places to what we find in his more recent writing. There’s one slight surprise, though – we’re leaving Paris far behind…
Villa Triste (translated by John Cullen, review copy courtesy of Other Press) begins in the mid-seventies, with a narrator taking a cinematic look at late evening in a run-down spa town. Before long, though, we go back to 1963, to the main action of the story, with our narrator, Victor Chmara:
What was I doing, at the age of eighteen, on the shore of that lake, in that fashionable spa resort? Nothing. I was living in a boarding house, the Lindens, on Boulevard Carabacel. I could have opted for a room in town, but I preferred to be on high ground, steps away from the Windsor, the Hermitage, and the Alhambra, whose luxury and dense gardens reassured me.
p.9 (Other Press, 2016)
A young man with time on his hands (and money in his pockets), with his own reasons for being away from Paris, Victor is whiling his time away in a small town on the banks of Lake Geneva, desperate for something to enliven his stay.
Luckily, that something arrives soon enough in the form of an encounter with two people who are to play a large role in his summer. Yvonne is a beautiful young actress of local origins, accompanied by a rather dignified Great Dane; Dr. René Meinthe is gay, flighty and slightly mysterious – the three become firm friends, and a summer of fun ensues. However, as much as they all enjoy their time in the sun, we’re fully aware that summer never lasts forever. It remains to be seen whether the relationships will endure once the season begins to change.
Villa Triste is one of Modiano’s earlier novels (the next prose work after the three works making up The Occupation Trilogy), and the writer appears to be still finding his style, with his work not yet firmly planted in the dark Parisian streets. There are several examples of the light touches of his first work, La Place de L’Étoile:
We spent lazy days. We’d get up fairly early. In the morning, there was often mist – or rather a blue vapor that freed us from the law of gravity. We were light, so light… When we went down Boulevard Carabacel, we hardly touched the sidewalk. (p.95)
At this point, the story runs pretty much as you would imagine. We have a couple of spoilt rich kids playing around and having fun, using their wealth, youth and good looks to enjoy the summer.
One thing that marks Villa Triste is a number of excellent scenes. Several feature René, who is frequently over the top, flouncing, seething, bouncing around. His quirky charm is complemented by Yvonne’s bohemian demeanour, exemplified by her room of squalor with banknotes lying scattered over the floor. The two reach their high point with success in the comical Elegance Cup (a posing competition for socialites), with René springing over the bonnet of his car to let out Yvonne, whose icy stare wins the judges over…
There is a much darker side to the novel, though, and the amusement is usually short-lived. All of the main protagonists are hiding secrets, using their time in the sun to avoid the problems of their real life. Victor claims to be a count, but it’s clear that his background is highly dubious. Yvonne is reluctant to open up about her origins, and the more he gets to know her, the more doubts the narrator has about her ‘film’. However, it’s perhaps René who has the most to hide. Towards the end of the book, his two young friends are shown glimpses of the life he spends on the other side of the border, one which isn’t quite as happy as they might have expected.
The main action in Villa Triste is set in 1963, when France was experiencing issues with its colony in Algeria. Victor’s decision to base himself near the Swiss border is a deliberate one as he’s what Americans would call a ‘draft dodger’ – he only has to cross the lake, and he’s free… Yet this is not the only mention of the conflict in North Africa as René is also involved in his own way. The mysterious phone calls and the visits he receives at night are also connected with the Algerian fight for independence – although we’re never quite sure what role he is actually playing.
One of the successes of the book is in its depiction of a sense of decay, and impending sorrow, even on the brightest of days. Villa Triste (‘Sad Villa’!) is the name of René’s house in Geneva, but it’s actually more suited to another house described earlier in the novel. The three friends attend a party there, finding an overgrown wonderland of a garden surrounding a large old house (there are definite shades of Le Grand Meaulnes here). Inside, things are even stranger:
Finally she decides to remove her remaining accessories herself and then continues to dance, stark naked, whirling around Witt von Nidda, brushing against him, while he remains motionless, impassive, his chin thrust out, his torso arched, a grotesque matador. His twisted shadow spreads over the wall, and the woman’s shadow – immeasurably enlarged – sweeps across the floor. Soon, throughout the entire house, there’s nothing but a ballet of shadows pursuing one another, climbing and descending stairs, bursting into laughter, uttering furtive cries. (p.33)
As uncomfortable as the scenes in 1963 can be, though, it’s the second strand, set twelve years later, that truly has that run-down, ‘triste’ air. Every so often, we return to this part of the story, where we follow René, stumbling around, alone, in a run-down out-of-season town…
There’s also a lot to like here in terms of style. Much of the book appears cinematic, and Modiano frequently uses the present tense, making the story slightly more engaged with the present moment than can be the case with his work (often, he’s very much looking back). While we have the humour, slapstick at times, characteristic of his early work (a good example of this is the character of the depressive dog…), this is still classic Modiano, with the usual lists and obsession with a missing father. Villa Triste is a full novel, and yet we’re still left with the feeling that there are gaps everywhere, with much of what we want to know left unspoken.
On the whole, I probably prefer Modiano’s slightly more controlled later works, but I could see this being a favourite for many people; it’s an excellent story of a halcyon summer, and the shadows that followed. Another entertaining work from Modiano, then, but never fear – there’s more to come. Come back later this week for one last trip down memory lane:)