My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“Outside everything seemed light, weightless, and indifferent – like the cold blue January sky.”
Reading After the Circus (1992) has been my first contact with the French author, Patrick Modiano, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014. There are many good things about this slim volume, and it has made an impression on me, albeit not one on the order of a masterpiece. First of all, it is a wonderfully short book, not much over 100 pages – one could technically classify it as a novella but it feels like a fully-fledged novel. More importantly, it deals with some of my favorite topics: the transience of memories and non-existence of the past. Yet the most impressive feature is the minimalistic prose. The author's economy of words is fascinating: no word is wasted and there are no spare words that could be removed without harm to the novel.
The book might conceivably be viewed as a thriller, but not of the usual action-cliché-upon-action-cliché variety. There is little action to speak of and the reader’s focus is kept through growing atmosphere of foreboding and menace. Three time frames exist in the novel: in the current time (early 1990s) Jean, the narrator, reminisces events that happened 30 years earlier, and there also is an unexpected detour to the 1970s.
Early 1960s, Paris. Jean is not quite 18 yet, and we meet him as he is interrogated at a police station. He is unable to understand why he is questioned; the reader is even more in the dark as the author points out that Jean is not always telling the truth. Jean notices a young woman - much later we learn that her name might be Gisèle - who is called to the interrogation room after him. He waits for her, they talk, and since she has to move out of the apartment she has been renting and has nowhere to stay, Jean offers her his place. His parents went (fled?) to Switzerland and left Jean the apartment. Gisèle happens to have some strange friends who ask Jean to run an errand: meet a man in a cafe and tell him that another man is waiting outside. The tension is skillfully ratcheted and culminates in a dramatic finale.
To me the following passage (my translation of the Polish translation of the French original) is the key to one understanding of the novel:
"Today I see this scene as if in a fog. In dim light, through the window pane I can make out a fiftyish blonde man in a tartan bathrobe, a girl wearing a fur, and a young man... The light bulb in the lamp is too small and weak. If I could go back in time and return to that room, I would change the bulb. But then, in bright light, everything might well dissipate."The seemingly all important "now", with all its interconnections, circumstances, relationships is continually dissolving into the past, but the actual past does not really exist, only the dim shadows of our memories.
One can read After the Circus also as a love story - sweet yet very low-key, implied rather than told, and suggested with the faintest touch of the literary brush. There is a strong feeling of autobiographical element in the way the story is told, for instance, Jean is said to be an aspiring writer. Vague references to politics and war are intriguing, particularly the passage where Jean's father asks for the files to be destroyed. What files, the reader may ask. But the files and their meaning existed in the parents' past.
A slight, subtle, and sad story. It reminds me a little of one of the best books I have read in my life, Cees Nooteboom's The Following Story , in that it deals with human impermanence and phantoms of the past, but Mr. Nooteboom does past much, much better. Nobel Prize in literature for him is way overdue.
Three and a half stars.
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