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Nobel thriller

Patrick Modiano surprises

January 1st, 2016

BY M.A.ORTHOFER

After the Circus
by Patrick Modiano
translated by Mark Polizzotti
published in France 1992

After the Circus seems like a very simple story. The Modiano-like narrator relates events from when he was eighteen; in contrast to many of this author’s works, in which he often (re)considers and comments on events and his actions of the past from a later or present-day perspective, Modiano barely intrudes on the timeline here, making for even greater immediacy to the story than usual. He does describe revisiting one of the locales, café, from his story at one point, ten years later, around 1973; once outside: “I stupidly broke down in sobs,” a rare emotional outburst from Modiano’s otherwise so passive and passionless alter-ego-protagonists. This prefigures just how devastating the blow to come to the eighteen-year-old in modianothe story proper is (a sense further reinforced by the fact that the story is only finally written by Modiano when he has distanced himself from events by another two decades, After the Circus coming out only in 1992).

The opening of the novel already suggests vague menace and unease, the young narrator being questioned by the police. He doesn’t know why, and when he asks at the end of the interrogation is simply told “Your name was in someone’s address book” — without being told whose. The names he is questioned about are ones he doesn’t recognize, so he is left with no idea what they think he might be mixed up in.

The narrator is a young man of barely-formed personal identity. He’s escaped from six hellish years at boarding school, with hardly any family support system; his father is in Switzerland — occasionally in contact if often barely understood over the telephone line — and the young man shares an apartment (that soon has to be vacated) with a man named Grabley. Grabley calls him Obligado — a nickname — and it is only very late in the novel that we learn his actual name, Jean. “I was struck that she’d call me by my name,” he says when it is finally revealed, a so-personal marker that only in an extreme situation (“Please, I’m begging you,” she pleads) does it come up.


After he is interrogated by the police a girl of about twenty-two is called in. Jean waits in a nearby café, and when she finally comes out catches her attention, hoping that she might perhaps know what it was all about. She claims she was there for a different matter — ‘just to give some evidence” — so he learns nothing, but she asks him for a favor, to hold onto her suitcase.

Gisèle — that’s her name — comes with more baggage: she’s married and she has a dog. But she and Jean fall into a sort of lockstep, and he even convinces her to join him when he sets out for Rome, where someone has arranged a job for him. Their relationship is intimate, but Modiano’s presentation of this is about as low-key as one could possibly imagine, and at various points they claim to be brother and sister (and their relationship does feel sibling-like, more than romantic or, certainly, sexual).

Gisèle introduces Jean to some people she has a connection with, notably a man named Ansart. Ansart asks them to do him a small favor, offering them some money for what is little more than an errand and doesn’t seem to be in any way dangerous. And yet both Jean and Gisèle sense — correctly — that they are being drawn into something very ugly. They repeatedly consider backing out, too, yet also sense that they are already too entangled, even as it seems that nothing really compels them to go along with the errand.

The sense of menace is masterfully managed by Modiano in this expertly-paced novel. The task seems almost trivial, almost everyday, and yet it’s clear that an awful, awful thing that will result. Modiano never spells anything out, and everything seems harmless enough. But it isn’t.

The love story, too, is beautifully done. Gisèle remains a woman of some mystery, and Jean is warned away from her, but as they tentatively feel each other out, the potential of a future together, a new beginning, in Rome, comes to seem increasingly more plausible. There are hurdles — her husband, and the fact that the underage Jean needs to forge his father’s signature on a document, allowing him to leave the country, something he repeatedly fails to get around to doing, preventing any immediate departure — but Modiano delicately navigates them slowly forward, and beyond some of what might stand in their way. It’s Modiano’s approach also that allows for the knock-out ending, which in other hands might seem simply too much.

It’s often said and written that Modiano’s oeuvre is all of a piece, his books overlapping, or even interlocked, parts of an (autobiographical) whole. Readers familiar with almost any of his work will recognize Jean and his circumstances, much of which has been touched upon elsewhere. Yet After the Circus strikes a fine balance between being rooted in this shared (over so many other books) past and standing on its own. Familiarity with, say, the father-figure, is helpful, and enriches the understanding of the text, but it seems that After the Circus can stand on its own better than many of the other works, perhaps also because the pivotal event is so well demarcated (and not, for example, as fuzzily rooted in the Occupation as similar central events are in some of Modiano’s other novels).

After the Circus is, ultimately, a bona fide — and first-rate — thriller: completely low-key and understated, and practically uneventful, and yet so effectively creepy, perfectly devastating — and heartbreaking. •

Editor’s Note: This review first appeared on Mr. Orthofer’s website The Complete Review on December 9, 2015. French author Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: 13th Anniversary Issue, Book Reviews, Books and Authors, Orthofer | Link to this Entry

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