Patrick Modiano: La Danseuse [The Dancer]
Like many of Modiano’s novels, this one has a similar basic plot. A young man, presumably Modiano’s alter ego, has arrived in Paris and is struggling to make a living. He associates with a group of people, some of whom have a decidedly shady background. There is usually a woman involved. The whole story is told from many years in the future, when our hero returns to Paris. He finds Paris much changed. Often by chance, he bumps into one of the people he knew many years ago and may or may not learn more about events of the past.
Our hero/narrator in this book is once again an unnamed young man. He claims to be a writer of song lyrics but we see no evidence of this. At 7.30 one evening, he goes to a flat letting agency, looking to rent a flat, a cheap flat. He is told that he will not find much at that rate but the letting agent recommends that he contacts Serge Verzini, who may be able to help him. We have already met Serge Verzini. At the beginning of the book, on his return to Paris many years later, he bumps into Serge Verzini in the street. Verzini has denied being Verzini but then invites our hero for a drink and his initialled cuff links give him away. Verzini gives him his phone numbers and address and suggests he contacts him later.
Back in the past Verzini does find a small, poky room, which he accepts. He tells our hero that as well as owning various properties, he owns a place called the Magic Box where he puts on dinner shows at the weekend though during the week a ballet dancer and her friends hang out there. He invites our hero to come along one evening, which, of course, he does.
The title of the book in French is in the feminine, i.e. meaning female dancer. While dancers can of course be male, I have left the title as The Dancer as Female Dancer sounds awkward. She is by no means the only dancer in this book but the others, nearly all male, are all named. Like our hero, she is never named.
He meets her and gradually they become friendly. She is being taught by a Russian, Boris Kniaseff, considered a first-class teacher. Gradually, our hero and another man, Hovine, apparently a child hood friend, become her friend but if there is any romantic or sexual liaison, it is not mentioned.
The dancer grew up in the suburbs. She used to travel into Paris every day and every day she is harassed by two brothers, particularly one of them André. She manages to escape them when she moves to the Wacker Studio but André reappears. Our hero mentions this to Verzini and, with his apparently criminal connections, he deals with the issue.
The dancer had been married but, as we later learn, he one day tells her that he has to leave Paris at once and advises her never to go back to their flat. He is never seen again. They have a son, Pierre. He is initially shunted off to his maternal grandparents in the country but, as we see right at the beginning of the book, he returns to Paris later, with Hovine and our hero picking him up at the station. The main role of the two men seems to consist of babysitting Pierre, taking him to school or children’s birthday parties.
Our hero hangs out with the dancers (there is another group chez Verzini who sit in a corner, whispering, presumably the usual criminal element we find in Modiano’s novels). Initially our hero seems to do nothing else, not even song writing and then he meets Maurice Girodias. Girodias is a real person, something we do not often find in Modiano’s novels playing a key role. He founded Olympia Press which published English-language books that could not be published in the English-speaking world such as J. P. Donleavy‘s The Ginger Man, William Burroughs‘ Naked Lunch and the works of Samuel Beckett. Girodias has our hero editing an English-language book (which seems very odd), the presumably fictitious Francis La Mure’s The Glass Is Falling. He laconically comments There are so many ways to get into literature…
Apart from finding out that the dancer is interested in the experiences of mystical women – he reads a few of her books himself – not a great deal more happens . We are now in January 2023. What became of the dancer and Pierre, and those I had met at the same time? This is a question that I have often asked myself for nearly fifty years and that had remained unanswered until then. And, suddenly, on January 8, 2023, it seemed to me that it no longer mattered. Neither the dancer nor Pierre belonged to the past but to an eternal present. However Paris has changed. All the tourists now have backpacks and wheeled luggage.
First published in 2023 by Gallimard
No English translation