"The vegetation here is thoroughly mixed, it’s hard to tell if you’re in the Alps, on the shores of the Mediterranean, or somewhere in the tropics. Umbrella pines. Mimosas. Fir trees. Palms. If you take the boulevard up the hillside, you discover the panorama: the entire lake, the Aravis mountains, and across the water, the elusive country known as Switzerland."Why “elusive”? We never learn why. “I didn’t yet know that Switzerland doesn’t exist.” Perhaps it is the notion of safety that doesn’t exist. A nineteen-year-old is not expected to know that, not then, not now. Modiano liberally salts his work with phrases that fill us with an unnameable dread. Count Victor is no more Count than you or I, but somehow we’d rather believe that than whatever it is he is running from. He is the son of Russian Jews, and the Second World War is over at least fifteen years. He is wealthy beyond imagining, but he has fear: he’s “scared to death” he tells us early on as he recounts the time he met Yvonne and Meinthe.
”When I think of her today, that’s the image that comes back to me most often. Her smile and her red hair. The black-and-white dog beside her. The beige Dodge. And Menthe, barely visible behind the windshield. And the switched-on headlights. And the rays of the sun.”Modiano writes like a painter paints. He weaves sound and scent along with color and emotion, light and dark.
”We returned through a part of the garden I wasn’t familiar with. The gravel paths were rectilinear, the lawns symmetrical and laid out in picturesque English style. Around each of them were flamboyant beds of begonias or geraniums. And here as well, there was the soft, reassuring whisper of the sprinklers. I thought about the Tuileries of my childhood. Meinthe proposed that we have a drink…In the end, the three of them, The Count, Yvonne, and Meinthe make quite a hit in that town at that time. Photographs show them glamorous and solemn, walking arm-in-arm beside the dog, Meinthe taking up the rear. Meinthe and Yvonne win the coveted Houligant Cup for that year and are sought-after companions for their edgy stylishness. Gradually Menthe and Yvonne share pieces of their shadowy background with Victor, and the glamour, he realizes, is all rhinestones and rust.
“The rooms in 'palaces' fool you at first, but pretty soon their dreary walls and furniture begin to exude the same sadness as the accommodations in shady hotels. Insipid luxury; sickly sweet smell in the corridors, which I can’t identify but must be the very odor of anxiety, of instability, of exile, of phoniness.”When “France suddenly seemed to [Victor] too narrow a territory,” he proposed they ditch the local act and take to the road, somewhere where they could show their true capabilities…America.
Later, when it is all over, we think that perhaps Victor’s fear is his youth, his aloneness, his uncertainty. He grew up that summer by the lake, and saw most of what there was to see. Later, when he ambles under the arcades on the Rue de Castiglione reading a newspaper, his education comes full circle, and the mystery begins again.
Promotional copy for Villa Triste, due out today in a new translation by John Cullen and published by Other Press, calls it Modiano’s most accessible novel. It may well be, but all Modiano’s great themes are present. This fine translation does justice to the underlying greatness of the work. A fine piece of literature that can keep you mulling events over in your head for a long time to come.
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