My Patrick Modiano week has so far seen reviews of a screenplay and a memoir, but what the French writer is best known for is his atmospheric fiction. To round off the week, then, we’re looking at another of his short novels, and it should come as no surprise to any of my readers by now that we’re heading off to Paris once more. This time we’re in the company of a man looking back at his younger years through a slightly misty lens, one tinged with nostalgia and regret…
After the Circus (translated by Mark Polizzotti, review copy courtesy of Yale University Press and Australian distributor Footprint Books) begins with a young narrator answering questions, immediately pulling us into classic Modiano territory:
Then more questions about my activities and my parents. Yes, I took literature courses at the university. There was no danger in telling him that lie: I really had enrolled in the program, but only to prolong my draft deferment. As for my parents, they were both abroad and I had no idea when they’d return, if ever.
p.1 (Yale University Press, 2015)
We soon learn that he’s actually at the police station, having been brought in for questioning when his name is mentioned in someone else’s address book (where have I heard that before…). As the young man leaves, a beautiful young woman enters, so he waits at a café down the road, hoping to run into her again.
It’s not much of a plan, but it works out better than he could have imagined, and he and Gisèle, as she introduces herself, have an instant connection. They go back to his apartment, and the pair soon become inseparable, even discussing a possible future together. While he has an offer of a new life in Rome, she is keen to get away from Paris, and the Italian capital sounds as good a destination as any. Even this early in the piece, though, it’s obvious that there’s more to the beautiful young woman than meets the eye, and we wonder how our friend will react if he somehow comes across the truth behind her compulsion to leave town.
After the Circus is another variation on the Modiano theme, once more taking us into a fictional slant on the writer’s own disturbing upbringing (in fact, the youth’s apartment, one of the major settings of the novel, is the very one Modiano describes in great detail in Pedigree…). With his mother overseas on tour, and his father having disappeared to Switzerland on some kind of business, the young narrator (around eighteen, but still a minor under the French laws of the time) is in the rather ineffectual care of Grabley, one of his father’s associates. In truth, he’s completely free, with plenty of time on his hands, ready for whatever adventure may come his way.
After the chance encounter with Gisèle, he casually drifts into her world, where (for reasons he doesn’t bother to ask about…) she introduces him as her brother. He meets a collection of acquaintances, such as Pierre Ansart and Jacques de Bavière, older men with a friendly demeanour and a disarming manner of keeping their private life very private. Having been drawn into this world, the narrator and Gisèle feel compelled to carry out a small task as a favour, one which they sense could be risky despite its apparent ease.
The first half of After the Circus is Modiano by numbers (and if no-one’s created a Modiano meme yet à la Murakami Bingo, I’d be very surprised). There are the usual random strangers encountered by a neglected minor as he wanders the city, with tense waits for phone calls which may or may not come, and conversations in which everything is said except for the things the speakers want to know. The story improves, though, as the relationship between the narrator and Gisèle intensifies. The more he learns about her and her background, the more he senses that she’s hiding something important, yet (with the impulsiveness of youth) he honestly doesn’t care, wanting to take her on, flaws and all. Gradually, the voice of the present-day narrator begins to intrude, and these reflections increase the feeling of impending tragedy, tinged as they are with a feeling of loss.
Once again, Paris is used less as a background to the novel than as a character in its own right. On the one hand we have the beauty of sunny afternoons spent driving through the city:
We skirted the Bois de Boulogne. Porte de la Muette. Porte de Passy. I had lowered the window slightly and was breathing in a draft of fresh air, the smell of wet earth and leaves. I would have liked to go walking with her down the alleys of the Bois, along the lakes, around the Cascade or the Croix Catelan, where I often went by myself in the late afternoon, taking the metro to escape the center of Paris. (p.43)
But this is also a story of the night. As darkness falls, we are taken to brasseries, shabby hotels and strip clubs, repeatedly crossing the river in the darkness, and all this eventually overshadows the happier side of the story. With the police and other old ‘friends’ on their trail, the young couple’s day in the sun is drawing to a close…
The relationship between the narrator (whose true name is given just once, late in the novel) and Gisèle is at the heart of the story, and it’s yet another example of Modiano’s fixation with older women (if anyone with a better background in psychology than I have would like to comment on the writer’s relationship with his mother, feel free…). While initially fairly tame, there are signs of a more physical relationship later on, even if Modiano never resorts to describing exactly what happens in bed. The trip to Italy becomes the focal point of their time together, but despite the constant preparations, there’s always a sense that something will intervene – the young man himself always doubts whether Gisèle will come back to him after her occasional absences. Just what is it that might separate them – her past, the favour the pair perform or something else entirely?
Although the last third of the book ups the pace, on the whole After the Circus is pervaded by a slightly unreal, dreamlike feeling:
We drive down Rue Blanche. Once more, I feel like I’m in a dream. And in this dream, I experience a sense of euphoria. (p.140)
At eighteen, the narrator has the feeling that this moment can last forever. Looking back from his older vantage point, he knows only too well that it doesn’t. Yes, they have a lot of fun, but unfortunately a glorious day of love and sunshine, no matter how dazzling, can’t last for ever…