Sunday, June 19, 2016

We were light, so light. . .

There are some mysterious persons — always the same ones — who stand like sentinels at every crossroads in your life.
Who are these people? The same people, over and over, across the course of one's life? Or the same people standing across many people's lives? Are some people marked to be sentinels? Who is my sentinel who is here now, and who was there then? Am I someone's sentinel?

For Victor Chmara, the sentinel is the hotel reception clerk. It seems odd, but also not, that the narrator should remark on this while recollecting the summer he was eighteen. The clerk had made an appearance in his life ten years previously, just a compelling figure at the Tuileries. And probably never again.

Why do some people leave an impression on others? It is rarely felt mutually, always imbalanced, one party remember a moment of great significance, the other does not.
We spent lazy days. We'd get up fairly early. In the morning, there was often mist — or rather a blue vapor that freed us from the law of gravity. We were light, so light. . . When we went down Boulevard Carabacel, we hardly touched the sidewalk. Nine o'clock. Soon the thin mist would be burned by the sun.
Villa Triste, by Patrick Modiano, is a strange little book. The whole time I was reading this novel I was confused by what time I was in; what is the time of the narrator, what is the time he is recollecting? It was an eternity of a summer, but maybe only a few weeks. Reading it felt like watching Last Year at Marienbad; moments of clarity amid a haze of people, of comings and goings, and suddenly everything dissolves again.
We were floating. Our gestures were infinitely slow, and when we moved, it was inch by inch. Snail's pace. Any abrupt movement would have broken the charm. We spoke in low voices. The evening invaded the room by way of the veranda, and I could see motes of dust languishing in the air. A cyclist passed. I continued to hear the whirring of his bike for several minutes. He woo was advancing inch by inch. He was floating. Everything around us was floating. We wouldn't even turn on the light as the dark came on. The nearest streetlamp, on Avenue Jean-Charcot, cast a snowy brightness. Never to step out that villa. Never to leave that room. To stay where we were lying on the sofa or perhaps on the floor, as we did more and more often. I was surprised to discover in Yvonne such an aptitude for abandon. With me, that corresponded to a horror of movement, and anxiety about everything that passes and changes, the desire to stop walking on shifting sands, to come to rest somewhere, to petrify if necessary. But with her? I think she was simply lazy. Like algae.
The biggest mystery to me is the identity of the narrator. He calls himself a count, but we learn that he borrowed his name, and the story he tells as his past. A few years of his childhood in Alexandria. He assumes an air of familiarity among the luxurious surroundings, a fashionable spa resort. Has he been here before, or not? He had fled Paris, "convinced that the city was becoming dangerous for people like me." The summer of 62, I believe. The Algerian war is drawing to a close. A deserter? There must be more to it. He has only one tie, and passes himself off as a Russian count of precarious health. He is not the bored rich boy people take him for. But who is he? "Who would have ever thought of coming to look for me among these distinguished summer vacationers?"
At the hotel reception desk, I exchanged my 50,000-franc notes for the equivalent in bills of 500 francs, which I carried upstairs in a beach bag. I emptied them all out on the bed. She put all her banknotes on the bed too, and together they formed an impressive pile. We marveled at that mass of paper money, which we wouldn't be long in spending. And I recognized in her our shared taste for ready cash, I mean for money easily won, the wads you stuff in your pockets, the wild money that slips through your fingers.
His love affair with Yvonne is founded on illusions. She is a great beauty, and there is no doubt regarding the passion he feels for her. But to most readers it will be obvious as the fleeting passion of youth, fueled by circumstance, little more. She is an aspiring movie actress, but she is clearly of humble origins and a pretender looking forward to a brilliant season at the resort. (How does she afford this lifestyle?)

The eponymous villa doesn't feature till late in the novel; as a symbol, it is something small that becomes much bigger.
In fact, the Meinthe villa didn't exactly radiate good cheer. No. Nonetheless, at first I thought the adjective "triste" unsuited to the place. Eventually, though, I realized Meinthe had been right, provided you could detect something dulcet and crystalline in the sonority of the word. Upon crossing the villa's threshold, you pervaded by a limpid melancholy. You entered a zone of calm and silence. The air was lighter. You floated.
In the frame story, our narrator has returned to the town, twelve years later, wondering about the people who pass through our lives, perhaps deliberately trying to seek some of them out, but he maintains a fairly anonymous presence. Monsieur Meinthe, the "older" gay man who saw them through that summer is now thirty-seven, with more mysterious dealings than ever. Perhaps the narrator is marked as a sentinel on Meinthe's life.

This is the second Modiano book that I've read, and I'm sure to read more. Beautiful and strange. All melancholy.
The uncle made no move to turn the radio off, and since I didn't dare intervene, I heard a continuous crackle of static that eventually sounded like the rustling of the wind in eaves. And the dining room was invaded by something fresh and green.

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