Review: Patrick Modiano – Villa Triste

Patrick Modiano, Villa Triste, translated by John Cullen, Open Press, 176 pp.

There are few greater demonstrations of the provincialism of the English-speaking world than the annual awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Year in, year out, there are grumblings at American and British writers being ‘ignored’ and urbane literati are transformed into fulminating populists indignant that Johnny Foreigners they have never heard of might possibly be considered among the finest writers in the world; it is as if the Swedes were engaging in a recondite game of literary hipsterism, picking the most recherché authors imaginable simply to impress their peers. Of course the Nobel and the Swedish Academy that awards it can be terribly self-regarding and its status as the ultimate barometer of literary excellence is very much contestable. Some of its decisions have been dubious enough –– J-M.G. Le Clézio, Orhan Pamuk and Dario Fo were, for me, rather humdrum awardees. But, given the international scope of the award, its winners generally tend to be of a higher calibre than those of most literary prizes. And some of them, such as José Saramago and Svetlana Alexievich, have benefited from the recognition to gain wider international readerships.

Another such writer is Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel in 2014. The announcement of his award was greeted with the predictable shouts of ‘who?’ from Anglophones and tweets of a rare petulance from Philip Roth’s official biographer (I mean, how many New York Times Notable Books does this Modiano guy have?) The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Chicago Tribune all called Modiano ‘obscure’, something that will be news to people in France, where he has been a literary bestseller for more than four decades. If Modiano is obscure in the centre of the universe that is the Anglosphere, well it’s not really his fault. A small number of his forty-odd novels had been published in English but hardly any remained in print at the time he won the Nobel. For one reason or other (most of them familiar to anyone who tries to champion literature in translation to English-speakers) the public and the critics weren’t biting. To the credit of English-language critics, they have been rather graceful in their acknowledgement of Modiano’s work once they got the chance to read it. In the twenty months since he won the Nobel, some nineteen of his novels have either been reprinted or published for the first time, some of them bundled with others in the same volume (because one of a number of defining characteristics of Modiano’s novels is their brevity, often as short as 100-110 pages, rarely any longer than 190).

The latest of his novels to belatedly see the light of day in English is his 1975 work Villa Triste, published by the Other Press, in a translation by John Cullen. Unusually for Modiano, it takes place entirely outside his usual Parisian hinterland, because its unnamed narrator (who takes on the identity of a young Russian aristocrat named Victor Chmara) has fled the capital for a resort on Lake Geneva. It is 1961 and he is fleeing conscription to the Algerian War, similar to the protagonist of Georges Perec’s novella Which Moped with Chrome-Plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard? A curious, seemingly moneyed young bourgeois Jew, he is only eighteen but is not what one might call ‘a teenager’, the term having only just come into currency and its associated social phenomenon having yet barely touched France. He wears a monocle for laughs and is surprisingly not mocked for such an ocular eccentricity; he declares himself stateless, which is most likely untrue, but it is in line with a long history of literary characters who haunt resorts and casinos like this one (I am reminded of the comment in Dostoevsky’s The Gambler that every Pole outside his country passes himself off as a Count).

‘Chmara’ makes the acquaintance of a young movie starlet, Yvonne, two years older than him, who has an abundance of cash after a recent film shoot and who is living in the Hermitage, a luxury hotel overlooking the lake. Also in the frame is Meinthe, a doctor, older still, of rather dubious aspect, who, like Yvonne, is a native of the town, and who practices across the lake in Geneva. Despite being as glacially passive as any other Modiano protagonist/narrator (one criticism that can be levelled at the author), the younger man wins the affections of Yvonne and moves in with her at the Hermitage. Nothing much else happens beyond a succession of minor escapades, which include a local beauty pageant Yvonne enters with ‘Chmara’ as her driver, a party at the titular villa on the other side of the lake, and petty conflicts with the provincial bourgeoisie, often involving Yvonne’s pet dachshund or Meinthe’s own catalogue of dearly-held grievances. (Though unknown to Anglophone readers, cinephiles might recognise in the plot Patrice Leconte’s 1992 film adaptation Le parfum d’Yvonne, which oddly made both the hero and Meinthe considerably older).

If all that sounds terribly insouciant, it isn’t. Worries and doubts inhabit the margins of the narrative, granting the reader –– and even the narrator himself –– only the most fleeting elucidation. Nobody knows for sure who Henri Kustiker, a disembodied menacing voice who frequently calls Meinthe’s telephone, is. ‘Chmara’ doesn’t know much about Yvonne’s past, and a brief visit to a man who might or might not be her uncle does not tell him much (the man’s Parisian accent causes the narrator to doubt there is a family connection). ‘Chmara’ himself is a fiction too, avowedly manufacturing some of his biography while disclosing other details whose veracity is uncertain (though they do chime with the often estranged relationship the young Modiano had with his own wheeler-dealer father). We might even wonder if ‘Chmara’, who swindles a Geneva bookseller out of thousands of francs, is not fleeing something more mundane than conscription to the Algerian war. The narrative of Villa Triste is not so much a hall of mirrors as a field of fog, with its characters flitting in and out of a history that is at once ephemeral and permanent, both floating and static.

The narrator tells the story ten years or so into the future, imagining himself returning to the lakeside resort, whose long decline is now complete, its hotels, clubs and casino now either torn down or repurposed to far less grand ends. He also sees Meinthe, adrift amid a crowd of soldiers on leave, from a dispassionate authorial distance. It is an unusual narrative device, all the more so for its focus on Meinthe, who was peripheral in ‘Chmara’’s own liaison with Yvonne. Perhaps the gay friend, the flamboyant gooseberry, has burned onto the retina of the narrator’s inward eye the way an object on a searingly bright day might. All this in the absence of the former object of ‘Chmara’’s affection, Yvonne, who is as irretrievably lost as the resort that serves as a backdrop. Reading it now, the forty years that have passed since the book’s original publication also bestow on it an extra patina that shimmers and obscures.

As ever with Modiano, the prose is pared down and unfussy yet pregnant with significance, and, the odd overly literal translation aside, is finely rendered into English by Cullen. As ever with Modiano, there is an enigmatic core to a remembered personal history and a faintly menacing nimbus at its outer limits. ‘As ever’ is something you find yourself saying and thinking a lot with Modiano, whose novels shift and differ only by degrees; still those degrees are consequential in the nuance and shade they cast on the past and future iterations of his work. Modiano does not so much write the same novel again and again as the same novel writes him. It is for this reason that his books often only impress with their full force (though ‘force’ seems a word crudely ill-suited to his writing) when you have gone through a string of them. The English-speaking world has a lot of catching up to do on Modiano and Villa Triste, a beguilingly odd yet familiar novel, isn’t the worst place to start.

Originally published by Berfrois.