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Patrick Modiano: Chevreuse

Modiano novels follow a standard pattern and this one is no different. Our hero/narrator is Modiano’s alter ego looking back. In some cases, as in this book, he is looking back twice, once as a young man and then as an old man. In this case he is respectively five years old, twenty years old and seventy years old. Much of the action will take place in Paris, though sometimes he ventures out to the distant suburbs or even out of Paris all together. In this novel, part of the action takes place in the village of Chevreuse, not all that far from Paris. There will be a strange flat where strange people seem to meet. There will be one or more louche characters, seemingly up to no good. At least one is likely to be foreign and foreign sometimes mean English. There will be a somewhat mysterious woman. His parents will either be missing or shadowy figures. He, with or without some of the other characters, will drive around Paris and its environs. Above all, he will be looking back, remembering these people whom he has probably not seen for many years. Indeed, in this books his looking back out-madeleines Proust.

Our hero is Jean Bosmans. (For many European football enthusiasts, the name will recall Jean-Marc Bosman, the Belgian footballer who legally challenged the European transfer rules and won. This is probably entirely irrelevant.) We first meet him looking back fifty years to his twenty year old self. He remembers Chevreuse but, initially not just because of he village but because of the Duchess of Chevreuse who appears in the Memoirs of Caaridnal de Retz, a book he is reading but inadvertently leaves on a train (though amazingly gets it back next day). Though he mentions it, it is entirely irrelevant to the rest of the story.

However, this all triggers memories of Chevreuse (the village), a woman he knows as Death’s Head (because she always seems so cool; her real name is Camille but she likes her nickname), who will turn out to be very relevant and the singer, Serge Latour, who also turns out to be irrelevant.

One afternoon, he meets Camille and Martine Hayward at the mysterious flat, near the Porte d’Auteuil and they set off on a drive. He immediately starts remembering the various places they pass through, which he frequented as a boy. When they arrive at Chevreuse. Martine is meeting someone who turns out to be an estate agent. They are visiting an old house, which she and her husband are renting. Bosmans does not go into the house with the women (which he later regrets) but remembers it well and starts recalling the house and his association with it as a boy (it seems he lived there for a while) – but, in this house there was no longer any trace of him. However, he sees the rental agreement and the owner remains Rose-Marie Krawell. He still recalls her from when he was a boy. She will pop up again as the owner of the mysterious Paris flat. On the way back, they even pass the district of Paris where he was born.

His next step is to visit the mysterious flat, from where his trip with the two women started. He rings the doorbell and the nanny lets him in. The owner is out at work and she is looking after his son. She is not sure what happened to the boy’s mother but she thinks that she is dead. He stays there chatting to her – she seems to be glad of the company – though she has no idea who he is and he does not know the owner. He will become a regular visitor during the day, though the owner tends to receive at night. Kim, the nanny, will tell him who comes in the evening and he recognises some of the names.

Through Camille, he also meets Michel de Gama, who takes offence when Bosmans asks if he is related to Vasco de Gama, not least because it later appears that his name is not de Gama. They visit a hotel where Camille used to work and de Gama still does, with his associate Guy Vincent, who also connects to Bosmans’ past, albeit with a different first name. It gets more complicated when it seems that Vincent (with the different first name) and de Gama (with the different last name) met in prison.

Gradually we learn that dirty deeds are afoot, that Bosmans might have seen something key when he was a child and that various people might be after him because of what he saw. Obviously he survives because, at the beginning, he is looking back at these events some fifty years later. Interestingly enough, much of what he learns from Camille and others may not be true and everyone more or less seem to disappear, though he does see one of them fifteen tears later in a Wimpy Bar in Paris. Meanwhile, Bosmans is writing a novel about the events – presumably the book we are reading – and tells us, when he is older, that various people have contacted him with more details.

While certainly standard Modiano, this book seems somewhat more complicated than some of his others in that lots of things, people and places trigger memories for Bosmans. Moreover, there are several improbable coincidences. For example, he is in Nice and takes a random taxi. The driver proceeds to tell him, for no reason whatsoever, about his (the driver’s) former employer who turns out to be key to the events of this novel. This is not the only example of a random meeting of that kind.

What does work in Modiano is the ever-present sense of menace which turns out not be as menacing as we might first have thought but is, nevertheless, still mysterious. We also have the usual assortment of odd characters who come and go and we (and often our hero as well) are never sure what they are up to. As always, the book was relatively short and very readable.

First published in 2021 by Gallimard
No English translation