‘Ring Roads’ by Patrick Modiano (Review)

IMG_5331You’d think that a trilogy of later novellas and an early novel would be enough Patrick Modiano for one week, but there’s still a little more to come.  I’ve slowly been making my way through the three early works which make up The Occupation Trilogy (see my earlier reviews of La Place de L’Étoile and The Night Watch for proof), and finally taking a look at the third of these books seems like a fitting way to round off my Modiano week.  Once again, then, we’re heading back to Paris (or thereabouts) in the war years – but this time we have a rather unusual guest…

Ring Roads (translated by Caroline Hillier, revised by Frank Wynne – review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia) begins in a small village somewhere outside the French capital, where a collection of suspicious characters are having fun at a small bar:

He and his two friends obviously have very large incomes but they seem to have acquired their money fairly recently.  They spend the weekend here, as middle-class families did in happier times.  On Friday evening they come down from Paris.
Ring Roads, p.228 (Bloomsbury, 2015)

These men are some of the chancers who populate war-time Paris, making a quick buck from the chaos caused by the flight of the city’s rich and powerful and enjoying a rest in the country at the weekend (in houses which have been vacated in a rush by those fleeing south).

The story is told by a narrator looking back at these events, perhaps imagining them from the old photographs he pores over.  Suddenly, though, our understanding of what is going on is upset as the narrator enters the story, interacting with the people he was describing a short time ago.  There’s the shady magazine editor, Muraille, the arrogant, aggressive Count Marcharet and several women along for the ride, such as the seductive Sylviane Quimphe.  But who’s this rather portly fellow lurking in the shadows, ‘…a chubby rather oriental looking man…’, his eyes nervously watching his friends’ every move?  That’s the so-called Baron Chalva Deycekaire – and he happens to be the narrator’s father…

This is the tenth Modiano I’ve read, with the books spread over five decades of the writer’s career, and most mention the narrator’s (i.e. the writer’s) father in passing.  However, Ring Roads is unique among these in placing Modiano senior front and centre (after a fashion).  His appearance is described several times in detail, and we eventually also get to hear from the man himself, even if what he does say isn’t exactly guaranteed to endear him to the reader.  This time, the narrator isn’t just wondering about what his father did during the war – instead he goes after him, wanting to see it all with his own eyes.

The good baron doesn’t even seem to recognise the narrator, perhaps unsurprising as the two are said to have parted ways a decade earlier.  Towards the middle of the book, Modiano takes us back to the years they shared together, with tales of shady deals with stocks and fake antique books.  Just as many of the narrators in Modiano’s work wander the streets of Paris in search of (ahem) a lost time, the baron has his own obsession, spending his weekends following a disused rail line around the city.  It’s after one of this excursions that the two men finally go their separate ways; the reason for the split comes as a bit of a shock…

Of course, it’s not just the absent father that crops up repeatedly in Modiano’s work, but also the gang that he was a part of, and Ring Roads allows us a glimpse into this slightly sordid world.  Here, we see them in their element, albeit on their days off, taking advantage of the social power vacuum to ‘borrow’ large houses and entertain themselves in any way they can.  By all accounts, things are far more hedonistic back in the capital, but even outside Paris, they know how to have fun, with several scenes here of wine, women and song.

Ring Roads comes from a fairly early stage in Modiano’s career, and while there are definite glimpses of the more restrained writer of the future,  there’s still much of the drama and hedonism typical of this era of his writing.  One of the central scenes in the book is a good example of this, a hellish dinner scene in the bar, where the narrator begins to feel rather unsettled:

Grève is waiting for us in the dining-room.  Our table is just underneath the centre light.  All the windows are shut, naturally.  It’s even hotter than in the bar.  I sit between Muraille and Sylviane Quimph.  You’re placed opposite me, but I know in advance that you’ll avoid looking at me.  Marcheret orders.  The dishes he chooses seem hardly appropriate in this heat: lobster bisque, richly sauced meats, and a soufflé.  No one dares argue with him.  Gastronomy, it appears, is his particular domain. (p.281)

With bright lights blinding him, and sweat pouring down, the excesses of alcohol, rich food and bare flesh (Quimphe is all but throwing herself at him at this point…) force the narrator to fight back the rising nausea he feels.  On top of this, he must watch as his father, ‘the Baron’, becomes the butt of jokes, some violent, cutting a rather pathetic figure.

And yet, there’s a suspicion (in truth, somewhat more than a suspicion) that none of this is real.  The young narrator, with an invented pseudonym of Serge Alexander, is perhaps wanting to imagine himself living this time with his father, driven to these mind games by a lack of knowledge of his father’s past.  Modiano cleverly confuses the reader, leaving us unsure as to how much of this can be taken at face value.  There’s a fair chance that this is all taken from the photographs, with Serge using the images he sees, and the names he uncovers during his investigations, to relive the war days himself.  In effect, the story simply takes the usual Modiano obsession with the past and pushes it that extra step.

Ring Roads makes for a fitting end to The Occupation Trilogy, and it has been fascinating to see how the writer’s style developed over the course of these early works (and continues to do so in his next novel Villa Triste).  Even if these are his first books, I’d hesitate to recommend this trilogy as an introduction to Modiano (Suspended Sentences might make for a better first look at his work); nevertheless, most readers will enjoy this look at the Nobel laureate’s first literary steps.  Modiano may be a writer who writes the same book repeatedly, but he can always surprise with his variations on a theme, and I’m certainly keen to keep exploring his back catalogue.  After a week in his world, though, I might just leave that for another time 🙂

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