“Something-he wondered later is it was simply his youth-something that had weighed upon him until that moment broke off him, the way a piece of rock slides slowly into the sea and disappears in a spray of foam.”
Recently I read Patrick Modiano’s After the Circus, the story of a young man whose life in Paris is being uprooted for mysterious, possibly illegal reasons when he meets a driftless young woman. It’s a strange, timeless story, told, obviously, in retrospect by a much older man who is looking back on a brief, yet memorable period in his youth. That same description could apply to Young Once, a story which opens with Odile and Louis living in Switzerland, facing their 35th birthdays, and about to make a career shift–modifying their residence from a children’s camp to a sort of tea shop for tourists. They sound like a young couple who’ve done well for themselves, and then we’re back in the past.
Louis is in the army when he meets Brossier, a much older man in a Saint-Lô bar. There’s something not quite ‘right’ about Brossier who claims he “worked ‘in cars.’ He even ran a garage in Paris.” Is he just a shady salesman or is he a criminal? He takes an extraordinary interest in Louis, and once Louis’s stint in the army is over, Brossier finds him a hotel, foots the bill and even buys him a pair of new civilian shoes. Brossier tell Louis he “would introduce him-as he had promised-to ‘important friend of mine who will give you a job.'”
Odile is just 19 and alone in Paris when she meets Bellune, a fascinating, sophisticated man in his 50s, who says he’ll help her with her recording career. He scouts out amateur talent for a record company, and he’s convinced that Odile can become a singer, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he convinces Odile she can become a singer. He funds the making of a flexidisc, but Odile soon finds that becoming a singer isn’t a smooth road.
Of course, Odile and Louis meet and become a couple. Louis has a job as some sort of ‘security guard,’ but just what he’s guarding isn’t clear, but as he becomes increasingly trusted by his strange employer, Roland de Bejardy, Louis assumes much more dangerous work. Meanwhile Odile has a tenuous gig in a nightclub.
There are some commonalties between After the Circus and Young Once. Both stories are about youthful main characters who don’t understand a great deal of the world that swirls around them. In Young Once, Odile doesn’t quite ‘get’ the nuances of her employment, and Louis, although warned increasingly about Roland de Bejardy, doesn’t ‘get’ just how crooked his employment is. Both novels also maintain an overriding disconnect from the characters, so we never know exactly what it going on in their heads–although Modiano conveys a sort of dreary disappointment when Odile collects a paycheck.
Nothing was left of the dream she had chased for so long except for an envelope, in which they had slipped her “the rest of your fee,” as the manager said.
There are several distinct worlds created in this book. Brossier, for example, is attempting to return to his youth by hanging out with his much younger girlfriend on a university campus, and at another point, Odile and Louis assume the roles of students attending a language course in England. We see glimpses of Roland de Bejardy’s world–some through interactions with his disaffected girlfriend and other views from those who know de Bejardy and warn Louis to move on while there’s still time.
I liked Young Once but didn’t love it, and this I think comes from the deliberate distance Modiano creates between us and his characters. Louis and Odile’s naïveté simultaneously makes them vulnerable and yet also acts as a protective seal. This young couple prove useful in the world of the older, the more sophisticated and powerful, and Modiano skillfully creates an atmosphere of imminent chaos while showing how Louis and Odile don’t understand the risks they are exposed to. The sense of emotional distancing is also apparent between the characters and their own lives. At one point, for example, Bellune describes the squashing of his music career “indifferently, as though it had happened to someone else,” and there’s the sense that de Bejardy’s high-maintenance girlfriend would be with any man who could provide her with the lifestyle she desires.
I’m interested, very interested in Modiano’s characters, but we never get inside them. They remain remote. Perhaps this distance mirrors the distance all of us have between our youthful selves and our middle aged selves. This is a story about youthful dreams, innocence and naiveté and once those things are lost, it’s hard to recall how we used to see the world. If it’s Modiano’s goal to recreate that haunting sensation of lost youth, then that is achieved.
Translated by Damion Searls