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Patrick Modiano: Villa Triste (Villa Triste)

This was Modiano’s first novel not set in during the German occupation of France. It is primarily set in 1960, though the narrator is looking back at 1960 from some twelve-thirteen years later. It is set in a town by a lake, near the Franco-Swiss border. Though the town is never named, various clues (nearby villages, the fact that the town is called A., and the fact that Modiano spent some time there) indicates that it either is Annecy or based on that town.

Our narrator is eighteen years old in 1960. He has lived in Paris but has fled Paris to come to Annecy. It is not entirely clear why he has fled Paris but it seems to be to avoid participating in the Algerian War. He has chosen this part of France, so as to be near to the Swiss border, so he can, if necessary, flee to Switzerland. He even explains how he could, if necessary, swim to Switzerland or get there by motor boat.

He is staying in a boarding house, where the other residents are all over sixty, so he does not fit in but that does not seem to bother him. He seems to do nothing much all day. He watches the gamblers and dancers, wanders around and reads film magazines.

As we might expect from Modiano, things are not entirely as they might seem. Who is he? He gives his name, when introduced later in the book, as Victor Chmara. It is not clear if that is his real name, not least because he claims to be Count Victor Chmara. He also claims that his name is Georgian and not Russian. He tells of his background. His father, a Russian Jew, and family fled Russia because of the Revolution, finally settling in Paris. His father had a colourful life (marrying a Woolworths heiress!) before marrying Victor’s mother, an Irish music-hall performer. He also seems to have been involved in some shady business in Africa. They were both killed in a plane crash in 1949 and he was brought up by his grandmother. He also claims to have spent some of his youth in Egypt.

Where does his money come from? That is not clear. He has no job during the course of the book. He claims the money he has came from buying some rare books cheaply in Paris and then selling them for a huge profit later. We are unsure about all of this.

One day he meets a young woman, Yvonne Jacquet, and her melancholy Great Dane. She is apparently twenty-two and an aspiring film star. She lives in an expensive villa called The Hermitage and appears to have lots of cash, allegedly for her film work. She is making a film with the famed Austrian director, Rolf Madeja, called Liebesbriefe auf der Berg. (Pedantry note: Liebesbriefe is plural but the French translates it as singular, though the English translation correctly puts it in the plural. Mountain is feminine in French but masculine in German, so it should be auf dem Berg. The French text uses the wrong form for most of the book but changes it at the end.)

We will later have doubts about both the film and Madeja. We will also have doubts about the people associated with the film, whom we meet.

Another person we have doubts about is René Meinthe. He seems very close to Yvonne but also does not seem to object to Victor. He claims to be a doctor, practising in Geneva, but without specifying what form of medicine he practised. We do know that he receives mysterious calls, invariably after midnight, summoning him to strange meetings. It is he who lives in the sad villa of the title.

Yvonne and Victor get closer and he eventually leaves his boarding house and moves into her villa. The implication is that they are engaged – both mention it more than once – but it seems a strange engagement.

Virtually everyone in the book seems to have something to hide. Meinthe tells Victor that Yvonne is here incognito. Why? When Victor checks her passport, she seems not be not from Paris as he had thought but local. Who is she and what happened to her father, who, like Victor’s father, died something of a mysterious death? And who are the (alleged) actors and film crew? Who are the strange people Meinthe meets and what is Victor’s real name? He gives us an indication that it is not Chmara.

Victor certainly likes the association with the film stars. Indeed, he sees himself as an Arthur Miller to Yvonne’s Marilyn Monroe. Monroe dies during the course of the book, as do other film stars, whose deaths he tells us about.

From his reportage in the 1970s, we learn very little, about what happened but, generally, we are left in considerable doubt about all the major and, indeed, many of the minor characters. Reading this book, both the 1960 part and the later part is something like looking at picture through gauze. We can see an outline but, overall, it is unclear, fuzzy and vague. It is Modiano’s style to leave his readers in the dark about what is really going in and, in that, he succeeds, admirably.

First published 1975 by Gallimard
First published in English by Gollancz in 1977
Translator: Caroline Hillier