“I tell myself she was living in that moment of youth when everything’s going to be at the tipping point soon, when it’s going to be a little too late for everything. The boat’s still at the dock, all you have to do is walk up the gangway, you’ve got a few minutes left…”
Patrick Modiano’s Villa Triste covers a short period in a man’s life that took place over one summer twelve years earlier. As he narrates the story, he recalls how in the early 60s, at age 18, he fled Paris “convinced the city was becoming dangerous for people” like him. Immediately there’s a sense of mystery which sets the tone for this languid, moody tale. He mentions the Algerian War, dislikes the “police-heavy” atmosphere of Paris, and considers there are “too many round-ups.” He seeks a “place of refuge” in a small French resort town, “just five kilometers from the Swiss border.”
The story opens with the narrator revisiting that long-ago summer when using the name Victor Chmara, he stayed at a third-rate boarding house, avoided any news, went to the cinema, and lingered at the casinos. Then one day, he met a glamorous couple: an auburn haired actress named Yvonne accompanied by her “melancholy” Great Dane Oswald, and a gay friend who squires her to social events, Dr René Meinthe–a flamboyant man with “agitated elegance” who occasionally refers to himself as “the Queen of the Belgians.”
Victor becomes Yvonne’s lover, and he’s quickly swept up into the claustrophobic society world of this resort town. He attends dinners, social events and parties, some of which take a decadent turn:
I keep thinking of a colonial country, or one of the Caribbean islands. How else to explain that soft, corroding light, the midnight blue that turned eyes, skin, dresses, and alpaca suits phosphorescent. Those people were all surrounded by some mysterious electricity, and every time they made a move, you braced yourself for a short circuit. Their names-some of them have remained in my memory, and I regret not having written them all down at the time, I could have recited them at night before falling asleep, not knowing who their owners were, the sound of them would have been enough-their names brought to mind the little cosmopolitan societies of free ports and foreign bars.
The novel goes back in time twelve years earlier but also appears to jump to the present with the jump in time marked mainly by Victor’s remarks about the changes in the resort town. He sees a now older rather pathetic Dr Meinthe and appears to follow him, but after concluding the novel, I don’t think he saw Dr Meinthe at all; he imagined him.
As in Modiano’s Young Once and After the Circus, the story in Villa Triste is concerned with an older man looking back at a time in his youth. All three novels contain Modiano’s favourite themes: youth, disillusionment, time, distance and memory, yet for this reader, Villa Triste is the best of the three. I liked Young Once and After the Circus, but more than anything else, I find myself fascinated by Modiano’s writing and the way he explores his themes. This is a writer who tackles the same themes, working over various plots, honing those themes through a shifting series of characters. In Villa Triste, the characters of Yvonne and Meinthe are people you can’t forget, and while there’s some blurriness to their stories, it’s the blurriness of Victor’s youth and his inability to ask the right questions. The distance between Modiano and his narrative, apparent in Young Once and After the Circus morphs in Villa Triste to the fogs of time. The characters of Yvonne and Meinthe, with their air of tarnished glamour, are much stronger, and much more interesting.
There are some wonderfully memorable scenes here–a visit to Yvonne’s uncle’s home and a contest to pick the most stylish couple who will win the Houligant Cup for “beauty and elegance.” Through the course of the summer, various celebrity deaths occur: Ali Khan, Belinda Lee and Marilyn Monroe. These events, now moments of history for the modern reader, serve to place the book in its context but also add flavor and historical significance to the times. This is an era that won’t return but it will live as a memory:
Time has shrouded all those things in a mist of changing colors: sometimes a pale green, sometimes a slightly pink blue. A mist? No, an indestructible veil that smothers all sound and through which I can see Yvonne and Meinthe but not hear them. I’m afraid their silhouettes may blur and fade in the end
Villa Triste, in common with the other Modiano novels I’ve read, leaves lingering questions created by very deliberate plot holes: just who is the narrator? What happened to his father? What sort of shady deals is Meinthe, who “more or less” practices medicine, mixed up in, and of course, what happened to Yvonne–yet another beautiful would-be actress who has style but probably not enough talent to launch an international film career. Villa Triste isn’t a place–it’s a state of mind and the lingering sense of loss from one summer long ago.
Translated by John Cullen