‘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.
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.