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Dislocation, chance, memory and webs without weavers: Existential Unease is alive and kicking!

After the CircusI was unfamiliar with Patrick Modiano until recently. Regrettable, but unsurprising, I suppose, as it took his 2014 winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature to have English Publishers eager to have the translated works on their lists.

So I was delighted to be approved by the publishers, Via NetGalley, for a copy of his novella, After The Circus, originally published as Un cirque passe in 1992, and set in the 60s

I was enormously intrigued, absorbed, thoughtful as I read, and I’m certainly now en route to explore more of Modiano’s beautifully written, spare, unsettling work. Literature which, on this showing, makes the reader inhabit an insecure, almost random seeming world, yet one where individual lives, and the memories each individual carries, make a pattern of connections which in some ways we use as an anchor, to prevent the sense of existential unease , insecurity and dislocation  which at times feels overwhelming.

And, on closing the page on the abrupt and totally apposite ending of Modiano’s book, not only am I wanting, and quickly, to investigate more by him, but also wish to re-read Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’ L’Etranger, existential French classics – and also, Kafka’s The Trial, where a huge, impossible to understand and mysterious state manipulates and interferes in the lives of individuals. The State provides the pattern within which the small, individual lives are taken over and have their ‘free choices’ circumscribed. Modiano put me in the particular feeling tone I had inhabited when I read each of those works

The narrator is a young student. It takes a while before we learn his name, and in fact, he is introduced by the other central character, a slightly older woman, whose identity is also only partially and slowly revealed, as her brother Lucien. The young man (Jean), who also pretends to be older than he is as he fixates on wooing the woman (Gisele) is not her brother, and most of the people she so introduces him to suspect both the relationship and the name are false. Gisele is married, and her estranged husband worked in the Circus, in some capacity.


The novel opens in sinister fashion. Jean has been pulled in and is under investigation – we are not immediately sure by whom, and never quite sure why, except that his name appeared in someone’s address book, someone who is also being investigated for some reason. After some hours of questioning, Jean leaves the building and sees the next person about to go in for interview. She is a stranger, but immediately attracts him, so he waits for hours in a café adjacent to the building, on the off-chance that the woman will turn right on leaving the building, and he can spot her and make her acquaintance, rather than turn the other way, in which case he’ll never meet her again. It does not seem sensible to hang around the doorway of the investigation building, as he is anxious that he may now be being watched. So, immediately, we have the role of chance, which way the woman will turn, but then, seemingly random decisions taken, random connections happening, the threads of cause and effect immediately thicken.

Underneath Eiffel Tower by Ivan Andreevich. Wiki Commons

     Underneath Eiffel Tower by Ivan Andreevich. Wiki Commons

Jean’s father, who no longer lives in France, is another person with some mystery about him. He appears to have been forced to leave France because of his involvement in some dubious activity. Jean is currently living in property owned by his father, but it’s likely he will have to leave soon, and everything in the flat is being, or has been, sold or moved out. A strange associate of his father’s, a rather seedy man in his 50s, is also living in the rapidly emptying flat.

Two of the people Gisele introduces Jean to, as Lucien,  are a couple of men whom we guess are also not quite as they seem, and Gisele seems obligated to them in some way. They are clearly using and deceiving her, but Gisele and Jean, in their turn, are planning to deceive them, in some way. Gisele possesses various heavy suitcases, contents unknown, which she picks up from different locations and asks Jean to caretake.

And there are other people who seem interested in the young couple, individually, and together.

The mounting suspicion that no-one is quite as they seem, that everyone has secrets to hide, that some dreadful danger lurks, which may suddenly appear, from anywhere, gets stronger and stronger. The reader is left as suspicious and at times as overwhelmed by free-floating anxiety as Jean. All Jean has to anchor him to the known are the memories which sometimes strongly surface, of earlier times in his life – though it seems there has always been, around his background, people and events who were mysterious, comings and goings not quite understood by the young boy as he grew up. And these have served to make him an individual who is not quite solid, never really fixed, one who has a certain passivity towards the twists, tugs, pulls and pushes of ‘fate’

If you are a reader of suspense and crime fiction who really wants to know what is being investigated, how conclusions are drawn, and exactly what the crime, if any, is, this may well be too frustrating a read. But if what draws you is a book which is full of the never spelt out, the dubious, which leaves you wondering exactly, what did happen, why, was it chance, or…………….this might well hook you, get under your skin. It did that for me. I didn’t find the uncertainty of it all just a writer toying with me, or being just too clever and contrived to bear, though I can see that some readers might draw that conclusion. For me, it worked, and I surrendered almost immediately and willingly let Modiano fill me with unease, and wonderfully create his unsettling world, which seemed far more real than the illusion we often seek to create for ourselves, that our world is certain, sure, safe.

Capturing the vertiginous feeling of Modiano’s book, You Tube, James Kingston

Modiano’s book is translated by Mark Polizzotti, and, for the most part I lost awareness that I was reading in translation . Polizzotti is director of the publications program at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which probably explains why Statesiders had access to this book from October 2015Patrick Modiano

Available to download on Kindle, the wood book is published on January 15th in the UK

After the Circus Amazon UK
After the Circus Amazon USA