Villa Triste by Patrick Modiano (tr. John Cullen)

There are some mysterious persons – always the same ones – who stand like sentinels at every crossroads in your life.’ (p. 47)

First published in 1975, Patrick Modiano’s Villa Triste is a short, hypnotic novel steeped in a sense of nostalgia for an all but vanished milieu.

modiano

As the story opens, a man is revisiting a summer he spent as an eighteen-year-old in a town in the Haute-Savoie region of France. Winding back to those days in the early ‘60s with the Algerian war rumbling away in the background, our narrator flees Paris where he feels unsafe, an uneasy, police-heavy atmosphere being firmly in evidence. Going by the name of Victor Chmara, the narrator installs himself in a sleepy boarding house, avoiding all news reports and communications from the wider world. Instead, he spends his evenings observing the young people around town, taking in a movie where possible and whiling away the hours at one of the local bars. The nights are long and languid, a mood which Modiano perfectly captures in his evocative prose.

I’ve never known nights so lovely, so crystal clear as those were. The sparkling lights of the lakeside villas dazzled me, and I sensed something musical in them, like a saxophone or trumpet solo. I could also perceive the very soft, immaterial rustling of the plane trees on the avenue. I’d wait for the last cable car, sitting on the iron bench in the chalet. The room was lit only by a night-light, and I’d let myself slip into that purplish semidarkness with a feeling of total confidence. What was there for me to fear? The noise of war, the din of the world would have had to pass through a wall of cotton wool to reach this holiday oasis. And who would have ever thought of coming to look for me among these distinguished summer vacationers? (pp. 16-17)

With the summer season in full swing, it isn’t long before Victor meets a mysterious couple in one of the town’s hotels, the glamorous, auburn-haired Yvonne and her close friend, the somewhat affected Dr René Meinthe. Right from the start there is something shadowy about these people. While they treat Victor as an old friend, taking him to lunch and various social events around the town, both Yvonne and René are somewhat evasive about their lives. René makes frequent trips to and from Geneva, although what he does there remains something of a mystery. Yvonne for her part is trying to fashion a career as an actress having just made a film with a director in the local area. The source of her money is never entirely clear, especially when it emerges that she hails from a fairly modest family still living in the neighbourhood.

Nevertheless, Victor is captivated by his new friends, Yvonne in particular, and the two of them soon become lovers. In the shelter of Yvonne’s room at the Hermitage hotel, there is a sense that Victor is muffled from events in the broader world; as long as the band continues to play, the world must still be turning.

Downstairs the orchestra would be starting to play and people began arriving for dinner. Between two numbers, we’d hear the babble of conversations. A voice would rise above the hubbub – a woman’s voice – or a burst of laughter. And the orchestra would start up again. I’d leave the French window open so that the commotion and the music could reach up to us. They were our protection. And they began at the same time every day, hence the world was still going around. For how long? (p. 100)

During the course of the novel, Victor – now aged thirty – tries to piece together the fragments of that long lost summer in Haute-Savoie. There are many unanswered questions from this time, a few of which I’ve alluded to already. By the end of the novel, some of these elements are a little clearer, in particular, the nature of René’s business in Geneva, a hub for transit activities at the time. Others, however, remain a mystery.

All in all, I found Villa Triste to be an intriguing novel, an intimate exploration of memory, identity, loss and our desire to understand the past. The place, period and cultural milieu are all beautifully evoked. Modiano conveys a society that values beauty and elegance, qualities that are typified in one of the novel’s best set-pieces, a thrilling recreation of the Houligant Cup, a contest for the most glamorous presentation of a classic car by a couple. With their eyes on the prize, René and Yvonne are all set to put on an impressive display for judges.

As the novel draws to a close, these people continue to haunt Victor’s memories. I’ll finish with a favourite quote, one that seems to capture something of the elegiac mood of this story.

Already in those days – soon to be thirteen years ago – they gave me the impression that they’d long since burned out their lives. I watched them. I listened to them talking under the Chinese lanterns that dappled their faces and the women’s shoulders. I assigned each of them a past that dovetailed with those of the others, and I wished they’d tell me everything: […] So many enigmas presupposed an infinity of combinations, a spider’s web they’d been spinning for ten or twenty years. (p. 32)

Guy has also reviewed this book – there’s a link to his excellent post here.

Villa Triste is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.

56 thoughts on “Villa Triste by Patrick Modiano (tr. John Cullen)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Really glad you like the sound of this one, Madame Bibi. I was spoilt for choice when it came to choosing quotes for this review as his prose is so suggestive of a certain mood/atmosphere. As a novel, it’s well worth reading.

      Reply
  1. hastanton

    I read this earlier this year too …. it sounds like the translation is excellent . The book has a real hypnotic atmosphere …loved the quote you picked at the end .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it read beautifully, so the translator must have done a great job in preserving that hypnotic atmosphere – I fell under its spell too. It’s a great quote, isn’t it? So many wonderful passages to choose from, but there’s something rather haunting about that one.

      Reply
  2. Tredynas Days

    I tried the Occupation trilogy earlier this year and couldn’t get on with it at all. I was disappointed, having read excellent reviews (plus those prizes he won). This one sounds more promising.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s interesting. I think I recall you saying before that you were disappointed with the trilogy. This was my first Modiano, so I’ve nothing to compare it with in terms of his other work. Nevertheless, its strengths are very much in the shadowy mood and atmosphere Modiano creates here. And in the characters themselves – there’s something intriguing about them, an air of mystery that’s rather hard to pin down. In a way, the story itself is quite ephemeral as the novella seems to be more of a mood piece (if that makes sense).

      Reply
  3. susanosborne55

    I’ve only read one Modiano – So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood – but gather that memory is a recurring theme in his work. It sounds particularly well handled in this novella. Beautiful jacket, too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the slippery nature of memory does seem to be a topic he continues to return to across a number of novels. (Well, I’m basing that view on some of the other reviews I’ve seen elsewhere, so it’s interesting to see you mentioning it too).

      The cover is beautiful, isn’t it? And the way it catches the light is quite stunning!

      Reply
  4. gertloveday

    The passages you quote capture exactly the charm of Modiano. Memories of sounds heard in the past, friendships with glamorous others steeped in mystery. Some reviewers find a sameness in his work, and it is true he often has a protagonist in a quest for his identity or his past, but he creates subtle variations in every story. I have read five of his novels now and I will certainly be reading this one. Thank you Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. Yes, that’s it exactly. And there’s a shadowy quality to these people too — as you say, something mysterious and ethereal in their make-up.

      I’ve seen some references to the recurring themes and a kind of sameness in his work, but I’m glad to hear that you feel there are subtle differences between the novels. Would love to see your take on this one, particularly given your fondness for his other work — it would be interesting to see how you think it compares, or where it sits in the overall picture. Do you have any favourites or suggestions for which Modiano I should try next? I may well leave a bit of gap before I read another, just to give myself a bit a breathing space, but it’s always useful to have a recommendation at hand.

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        The Search Warrant, called Dora Bruder in French, is the last one I read. Concerns a search for a young girl who has disappeared. It all comes back to the Occupation. Wonderful but sad. Maybe wait a while.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how spooky! Well, there’s still time to get hold of a copy. I would love to be able to read something like this in its native language as the prose feels so evocative.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. I think you would like this novel very much. Its strengths lie in the mood and atmosphere Modiano creates, so it’s easy to feel transported to another time and place.

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    This sounds appealing in many ways. As I get older I am becoming fascinated with memory and looking back at old, important events in my life. Books that touch these subjects are fascinating to me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I know what you mean about becoming more interested in memory and personal recollections as the years slip by – it’s only natural, I guess. It’s an interesting subject to explore in fiction, so many possibilities for different types of stories.

      Reply
  6. Emma

    Great review.
    I didn’t like very much the Modiano I read but everybody agrees to say he’s wonderful. Obviously, he made another conquest :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I do recall you being pretty non-plussed with the Modiano you tried (it must have been quite soon after he’d won the Nobel if I remember rightly). While I wouldn’t say that this was my favourite read of the year — the central story is fairly ephemeral in some respects — I did love the mood Modiano created here. And the characters themselves are rather intriguing…

      Thanks for replying to Marina, too. I did think of you when she mentioned a French copy!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, right. Yes, I see what you mean. The English expression — making a mountain out of a molehill — is just referring to a small pile of earth, the size a mole would make when it burrows under the ground. In effect, it’s the same idea as your sand pile.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m drawn to a sense of nostalgia in fiction too, and Modiano captures it very effectively here. I was glad I started with this one as it felt like a good introduction to his style and themes.

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    I have never read Modiano but I certainly want to now. I love the quality of the writing in the quotes you’ve chosen. Very evocative and that final quote is delicately haunting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great to hear. The quotes are beautiful, aren’t they? Delicately haunting is a lovely way of describing that last quote. In fact the whole novella has that kind of feel, very shadowy and alluring.

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I read one Modiano which I liked but I struggled to get on with another. They both drew on France’s wartime past and heritage, and I sensed a certain sameness in his writing. However, I have to say that this one sounds a bit different and I might be inclined to give him another go. I was beginning to think that it was a case of Emperor’s New Clothes, but maybe not… :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I remember you saying that your experience has been a bit mixed! Out of interest, which one did you like? (Actually, it would be useful to know the name of the one you struggled with too, as I might want to avoid that.) I’m glad to hear that Triste sounds a little different to your two as it builds on Gert’s comments about there being a subtle degree of variation between his novels. This one excels in the creation of mood and atmosphere – plus the characters are rather intriguing too, in a mysterious, shadowy kind of way. All in all, I’m really glad I read it.

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        I read The Search Warrant – which was good and evocative, but when I think back it seems to be that it lacked a little substance. I got “Suspended Sentences” out of the library, but after starting it just couldn’t carry on – something about it just didn’t grab me enough, and it seemed that it would be going over the same kind of territory. It does seem that he’s another who divides readers!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It’s interesting to hear you say that The Search Warrant lacked a little substance, as I felt that too with Villa Triste. The writing it beautiful, and he creates such an evocative mood, but the core story is somewhat ethereal. I just wonder how much of it I’ll remember in say six month’s time? It’ll be fascinating to see.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Entrancing is a great way of describing this one. It’s rather dreamlike and hypnotic in style, just like the world it is aiming to represent. I hope you get a chance to read it at some point – it’s a beautiful mood piece.

      Reply
  9. Caroline

    I’ve read maybe seven or eight of his books but this remains my favourite.
    To be fair, it was my first, so all the others seemed like variations on a theme. He’s many things but he isn’t varied. His books are all similar.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, wow. Vishy was right – you are a Modiano expert! It sounds like I may have started with his best, or certainly one of them. The-variations-on-a-theme idea seems like a good way to view his work. Maybe it’s best to put a decent amount of space between readings – otherwise, they might start to merge together despite the fairly subtle differences between each one. Completely different style, but I’ve heard people say the same thing about Barbara Pym’s early novels in that they’re all slightly different riffs on certain recurring ideas.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I read the very close together. It was amazing but they blend into each other. Villa Truste stayed because it’s not set in Paris like many or most of his other novels. I’m curious how I’ll like him after all thus time.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I can imagine. Yes, I got the feeling from Karen’s comments (along with other reviews I’ve read) that several of his others are set in Paris, probably around the time of the Occupation. It’ll be interesting to see how I find some of those.

          Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s interesting as I felt the plot was a little sketchy in Triste. I get the feeling that his work is more about mood/atmospherics than the actual storyline itself.

          Reply
  10. 1streading

    I’ve enjoyed the Modianos I’ve read -Honeymoon and The Search Warrant – but I suspect if you were to review a lot of his novels you’d be repeating yourself. Still I want to read more and your post has prompted me to explore the order of his novels as most have appeared in English within a year or two!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I know what you mean about the recurring themes and stylistic points as I feel as if I’m already starting to repeat myself in the comments about this one! Nevertheless, it’s good to know that you’re keen to continue reading him – it suggests there’s enough there to maintain your interest.

      Reply
  11. bookbii

    You know I’m going to have to read Modiano because you describe his work so evocatively and in terms which are instantly attractive: hypnotic, intriguing, thrilling. And the quotes are, indeed, hypnotic. Great review as always Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great. I think you’d like it, Belinda. It’s rather dreamlike in a way – very shadowy and mysterious, just like the world Modiano is aiming to capture.

      Reply
  12. Max Cairnduff

    I had this one vaguely earmarked simply as I recalled it being one of Guy’s favourites, and I note you liked it a lot too. Somehow he’s a writer who never quite appeals to me though. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the theme of nostalgia is simply one that doesn’t speak to me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I did like this one, and the characters were intriguing – but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to you, especially if the theme of nostalgia doesn’t particularly appeal. It’s very much a mood piece as the storyline itself plays second (or third) fiddle to the other elements.

      If you get a chance, take a look at my review of Natume Soseki’s The Gate. I loved that book, and I think you might like it too. Maybe you’ve already read it as I seem to recall you mentioning his I Am a Cat at some point?

      Reply
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