After the Circus

Patrick Modiano, translated by Mark Polizzotti

Yale University Press, £10.99

Patrick Modiano is the Parisian author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. This probably did not come as a surprise to French readers. For others it entailed some investigative journalism to find out who he was. It is an amusing coincidence then that Modiano’s 1992 novel After the Circus, now published in English for the first time, presents us with a string of characters who never emerge from behind their cigarette smoke. Modiano has now been found out, although he was not actually hiding. His lack of notoriety is neatly explained by the lack of translated works available in English. This is especially odd when one finds out he published his debut novel La Place de l’Étoile in 1968, the first in his Occupation Trilogy about Paris in World War Two.

After the Circus is narrated by a man calling up memories of a brief love affair he had whilst an 18-year-old schoolboy trying to avoid the draft in Paris during the 1960s. The relationship and the novel start in a police station. The narrator is questioned by detectives who have found his details in a suspect’s address book. Once released from the interrogation room, he sees a young woman enter after him. He invites her to a nearby café and they both lie their way into each other’s hearts. She presents herself as Gisèle, although names soon become superfluous. She carries around two brick-heavy suitcases, has dangerous friends, and may or may not still be married. Gisèle introduces him to her friends, to whom she clearly owes a debt. Their conversations are littered with unfinished sentences, each trying to maintain the identity of whoever they have decided to be. The pretence is infectious. Each person continuously slips out of the reader’s grasp and eventually even those who are not ostensibly threatening become eyes for some unknown watcher.

At its opaque centre, this is the story of two lovers pitting themselves against the world in the vein of Faulkner’s The Wild Palms or Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Except there are no great landmasses to traverse; instead, there are the streets and quays of Paris, where characters find and lose each other. In keeping with the territory, Modiano’s syntax is closer to Hemingway than Faulkner. A simple sentence can hold a beautiful heaviness, weighing down the characters within their obscure world. At other times it can seem prosaic and utilitarian. But the overall affect is like staring through the shutters of a gambling den and watching a seedy mystery unfold. You know the full picture will never be revealed in Modiano’s Paris, a city of silhouettes and reflections where "lights and shadows shaped like window grates" skid across bare walls and ceilings.

After the Circus drifts along as if the narrator is trapped in a fugue state or chiaroscuro dream. Images repeat like a clock chiming every hour. Each time different. Each time more sinister. A countdown to death. He sees himself lying with Gisèle in an unfurnished room lighted only by a "small and weak" lamp: "If I could go back in time and return to that room," he tells us, "I would change the bulb. But in the brighter light, the whole thing might well dissolve." The narrator’s fear goes beyond this stark scene. This is not the story of a respectable innocent finding himself in a dark underworld. The narrator’s own history and parentage is mired in mystery. His father has fled to Switzerland, his mother to Spain. There are clues. Nothing else. A grubby man called Grabley is left behind. He does ‘the rounds’ every morning, carries out the absent father’s dirty work and falls in love with prostitutes.

The narrator and Gisèle’s love reminds one of Shakespeare’s 138th sonnet: "When my love swears that she is made of truth/I do believe her, though I know she lies." Lies and love are inextricable. They both accept this, and plan their escape to Rome. “ ‘you can feel safe in a foreign city….no one would know us…’ ” Gisèle says, almost to herself. But time ruins them. Near the end, returning to that bedroom where they lie together, "the apartment detaches itself from the past" and the unseen threats become palpable. Like the apartment, the pair become separate memories; boats unmoored in the night. The fog thickens. The teller of the tale is left only with the cold present and the streets and cafes of Paris, which raise more questions than they answer.

Review by Nick Major