Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano‘s brief, visionary 1975 novel Villa Triste fits into the long literary tradition that marks the heightened awareness and impressionability of the young. Our youthful experiences and the memories that ensue are the deepest and most intense of our lives. The mysterious narrator of Villa Triste is an exemplar.
An 18-year-old purporting to be a Russian count, he turns up in a lakeside resort town in the Haute-Savoie region of eastern France. Switzerland is just on the other side of the lake, and mid-20th-century politics are in turmoil, with France’s fraught involvement in Algeria. But everyone carries their secrets into the swinging hotels and resorts and adopts an attitude of utter leisure. It’s a rather Gatsby-like milieu, but only in season, “a summer vacation spot doomed to turn back into a boring little burg at the end of every October.”
The self-styled Count Victor Chmara begins a passionate affair with Yvonne, a local beauty and aspiring actress who has just wrapped her first film. The third point in the story’s unorthodox triangle is René Meinthe, a more-or-less out gay man and childhood friend of Yvonne’s. His father was a local hero of the French Resistance, but Meinthe fils seems adrift. One day he lords over his tiny sphere of influence – Yvonne, mostly, and then Victor – like a queen; and the next withdraws into solitude. One day he leaves a note for Victor and Yvonne at their hotel: “Forgive me for not having given you any signs of life, but I haven’t left my room for forty-eight hours. It occurred to me that in three weeks I shall be twenty-seven years old. And that I shall be a very old, very old person.”
Flamboyant yet secretive, Meinthe has a mysterious medical practice in Switzerland but spends his nights and his money at the clubs and restaurants of the resort town, socializing yet remaining separate, partially accepted into the glitzy lakeside society. We sense that something besides his sexuality, some hidden silent sadness, is helping to make him a lonely, ultimately tragic figure.
As Victor gets more attached to Meinthe and Yvonne, he inches closer to the unseen parts of the doctor’s life. But Modiano isn’t interested in telling the kind of mystery story where all is revealed in the end. His aim is to draw a finely detailed portrait of a small, part-time world whose glory days, just like Meinthe’s, are numbered.
Sometimes Modiano deploys an exquisite touch of humor to set the tone, paint his pictures, and even foreshadow. Yvonne’s loyal dog “belonged to a very rare strain of Great Danes, all of them congenitally afflicted by sadness and the ennui of life. Some of them even committed suicide. I wanted to know why she’d chosen a dog with such a gloomy nature.”
“‘Because they’re more elegant than the others,’ she replied sharply.”
With a close eye for detail, Modiano brilliantly encapsulates this little milieu, and his quiet character studies, in the wider context of war and geopolitics that hover just out of view but cast faint shadows even on the sunniest lakeside tennis court. A faint air of desperation clings to the fancy folk at the hotels, and to those who work there too. An orchestra leader “stood leaning forward, his chin practically against his chest. And when the piece came to an end, he’d jerk his head upward, openmouthed, like a man gasping for breath.”
Victor experiences another context when he and Yvonne visit her childhood home in the gritty part of town away from the lakeside hotels, where he meets her eccentric uncle. By contrast, Meinthe’s weirdly empty house does almost the opposite for Victor’s mysterious new friend – deepening the mystery about what the doctor really does in Geneva.
At the same time we get only tiny hints of who Victor himself really is. When we take leave of him, he’s not even accompanied by his new friends, who in the end can’t be what his youthfully romantic heart wants them to be. Instead the middle-aged restaurant manager, an Egyptian immigrant named Pulli who’s taken a shine to Victor, drives him to the train station. One of Victor’s suitcases is accidentally left on the platform as the train pulls away. Giving up, Pulli “stopped, panting, and made a broad gesture of helplessness. Then he stood very straight, still holding the suitcase, under the lights of the platform. He looked like a sentinel, getting smaller and smaller. A toy soldier.”
Of course, it’s Victor, not Pulli and not his friends, leaving town as if to war, into the unknown mists of the future, like Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain. Satisfying even as it leaves you wondering, Villa Triste is both a classic bildungsroman and a reflection of one fine writer’s idiosyncratic vision, served well by John Cullen’s artful new translation and now available as a trade paperback from Other Press.