The nameless, passive protagonist in Patrick Modiano’s Villa Triste calls himself Count Victor Chmara. Much of the novel is composed with Victor’s memories of avoiding conscription. He stays in a small lakeside town in France near the Swiss border. In the present, Victor returns to this town and notes how much it’s changed in the intervening 12 years. He discovers in his wanderings the now shabby visage of his former friend, Dr. René Meinthe. Victor doesn’t approach him, rather he observes from a distance and recalls the past.
Victor chose this town 12 years earlier because of its proximity to the border. Should the war find him, he can simply cross over into Switzerland. Despite his fears, Victor carefully avoids all serious news, lest he be exposed to the conflict abroad. Idle time is spent watching films (he’s careful to arrive after the news reel), sitting in cafés, bars and the casino. He’s always alone and on the periphery of these scenes. This is the case even after he first meets Meinthe and Yvonne Jacquet, a young actress who will become Victor’s lover.
The three go to a villa party hosted by an Austrian filmmaker. Predictably, as the evening progresses, the party gets a little blue. Though the scene is prudently opaque, it seems Victor sleeps with Yvonne after they steal away to a separate room. Victor then explores the villa’s salon. He recalls this image of a woman sleeping on the floor:
She was asleep, her cheek resting on her outstretched right arm. The bluish bar of moonlight that lay across the room lit up the corners of her mouth, her neck, her left buttock, and one heel. On her back, the light was like a long, narrow scarf. I held my breath.
I can still see the leaves swaying outside the window and that body cut in two by a moonbeam. Why is it that a vanished city, prewar Berlin, is superimposed in my memory on the Haute-Savoie countryside that surrounded us?
At one moment the writing will render scenes so subtly they can verge on obfuscation. For example, the orgy is less explicit than if, say, Michel Houellebecq wrote it. Modiano’s encoding of symbols and images to convey his themes, however, is far more pornographic.
One of the female participants hangs her head over a green leather armrest, her body and partner are hidden in shadows. She repeats the phrase “Kill me…” as her blonde hair sways above the floor. The image is striking yet heavy handed. The juxtaposition of sexual activity with the utterance of a death wish is so starkly incongruous it’s begging the reader to interpret it.
Aside from la petite mort, Villa Triste explores alienation and existential anxiety with images of division. There’s the floating head and the bisected woman from the orgy. Victor lives near a border. One of his eyes is weaker than the other; this causes him to wear a monocle (which adds to his aristocratic airs). Even the narrative is divided between the present and the past. Once you begin noticing these halves and divisions it’s hard to stop.
This sort of repetition happens more noticeably with colors. Red, green and blonde stand out in particular. Yvonne has auburn red hair, Meinthe’s name is mistaken for ‘menthe’ or ‘mint’. Red and green are paired in Yvonne and Meinthe’s friendship, a friendship existing before Victor met either of them. Often the world is overtly noticed to have red and green colors and there’s the more covert instance of men singing ‘O Christmas Tree’ in the novel’s opening. Many locals and vacationers are noticed to have blonde hair.
While Victor’s history is largely unknown, there’s the suggestion Victor is Jewish and from North Africa — the war he’s fleeing, I take it, is the Algerian War fought from 1954-62. The religious and ethnic connotations with the colors and the leisurely blondes adds to the theme of alienation.
These details are all part of Victor’s memories and picked out by his eye. Is the repetitious noticing of particular colors and images part of Victor’s crafted personality or are they tics in Modiano’s writing? Perhaps both. Victor notices and recalls the carefree blonde vacationers and the symbolically turgid moaning of orgy goers because they confront him with his own alien, worrisome life.
Yet the rendering of these details are done by Modiano. Yes, Victor may be a monomaniacal flâneur, but here, Modiano acts as a blunt Flaubert. Even if the repetitions are intentional and directed towards the novels theme, the effect is a world unfortunately shrunken to a few predictable details and images.
Despite these criticism, Villa Triste is enjoyable and rather affecting in its conclusion. I mentioned Victor’s passivity earlier. Events always happen around him. He observes and never acts. He’s not stolid, however, these events move him greatly and he can become quite impassioned. We are privy to his thoughts and we are also inert with him on the periphery. When he does act in the final few pages, his actions bring a kind of catharsis and his failure is moving.
As I recall Modiano’s Suspended Sentences — a collection of three novellas — was more controlled and covert with its symbolic implements. Perhaps the source of this apparent incongruity in his writing is caused by us, the English reading Modiano bandwagoners, experiencing his work out of order. The three novellas in Suspended Sentences were written between 1988-93 and In the Café of Lost Youth was written in 2007. Villa Triste was originally published in 1975, relatively early in Modiano’s writing career.
Our experience of his work is distorted and separated by time, which is, funny enough, similar to the plotting of Villa Triste.