‘After the Circus’ by Patrick Modiano

After the circus by Patrick Modiano

Fiction – paperback; Yale University Press; 160 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

What a treat this book proved to be! Patrick Modiano’s After the Circus, set in the mid-1960s, is a hypnotic and atmospheric read — think moody Parisian cafes, high-ceilinged apartments, empty tree-lined streets and endless cigarette smoking — about a love affair between a teenage boy and an enigmatic older woman. But this is not just a love story; it’s also a kind of mystery, one that is marked by a dark and potentially violent undercurrent.

Love at first sight

When the book opens we meet our narrator, Jean, who is looking back on his life. He tells us that as an 18-year-old he was interrogated by police about a man and a woman he claims not to know. It was during this interrogation that he first set eyes on the woman who has bewitched him ever since:

He [the policeman] saw me to the door of his office. In the hallway, on the leather bench, sat a girl of about twenty-two. “You’re next,” he said to the girl. She stood up. We exchanged glances. Through the door that he’d left ajar, I saw her sit down in the same chair that I’d occupied a moment earlier.

The girl’s name is Gisèle. Later that day, seated in the window of a cafe, Jean sees her passing by and catches her attention. She comes inside to join him, and the pair remain pretty much inseparable from the word go. But there are complications to their relationship. Jean, for instance, never reveals his true age; nor does he admit that his father has fled to Geneva under mysterious circumstances. And Gisèle, who was once married and worked in the circus, plays her cards close to her chest, never quite explaining how she makes a living and why she’s being booted out of her present accommodation.

As the narrative unfolds and the couple slowly begin to open up to one another, making plans to flee to Rome where Jean has been promised a job as a bookseller, Gisèle continues to hold things back. What, for instance, is she hiding? Why does she introduce Jean as her brother to her male friends? And who are these men  — and why do they want her and Jean to carry out a certain task for them?

A love letter to Paris

As well as the moody, evocative descriptions of Paris — the story feels a little like a love letter to the city — Modiano’s quietly understated prose, which is beautifully translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, truly captures the exhilaration — and confusion — of young love. It brims with nostalgia, heartbreak and melancholy. Yet, at the same time, the book is deeply unsettling, for the young Jean is caught up in events much larger than himself, events he doesn’t fully understand and which have the potential to ruin his life and the lives of others.

I read this elegant, sophisticated book with my heart in my mouth, fearful not only for Jean’s well-being but also his reputation. It’s a wonderful read, the kind of novel you can get completely caught up in as it transports you to another time and place, helped in part by the lovely languid writing and the dreamlike recollection of a different era. Nothing, however, is straightforward: it poses more questions than it answers and there’s an emotional nuance to the writing that brings to mind the likes of Jean Rhys.

If After The Circus is any indication of Patrick Modiano’s general tone and style, chalk me up as a new fan.

Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. After The Circus was first published in French in 1992; this edition by Yale University Press’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series is due to be published in the UK later this month.

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14 thoughts on “‘After the Circus’ by Patrick Modiano

    • I must go check out your reviews; I think I need to build a mini-collection, I really do like this kind of writing! This one comes out in UK on 27 January (I think?); not sure if there is an Australian publication date.

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        • Hehe, glad I’m not the only one who finds books I’d forgotten I had. I did an Australian stocktake and found so many books I can’t recall having bought they’ve been in my piles so long…

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  1. So glad you enjoyed this ….and funny you should make the Jean Rhys connection. I wrote a piece on favourite novellas for Poppy’s blog and I picked this together with Good Morning Midnight by JR !!

    I have found the more you read of Modiano the more you become addicted . I’m up to 10 now and have two more on my TBR. At last more of his work is being translated.

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      • Yes in French . I always recommend A Pedigree as that is about him , his brother , family and childhood so it sets his writing in a context and you can see where many of his recurrent themes come from . I also really loved Dora Bruder ( published in Eng as A Search Warrant) so achingly sad . I think it’s great to discover a writer with such a huge ‘back catalogue’ . The world he creates is as beguiling as Grahame Greenes Greeneland I think . I call it Planet Modiano !

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  2. I’ve resisted the temptation to try Modiano so far, but this could be the one that tips me over the edge. It does sound absolutely mesmerizing, very evocative and atmospheric. I love that cover!

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    • No, I hadn’t heard of him until he won the Nobel Prize either, but then I’m not terribly up-to-speed with French writers; for a long time I was under the impression I didn’t get on with French fiction but I’m slowly reassessing that opinion 😉

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  3. I’m sold! Another title added to the list on my phone! I appreciate your review because it gives me a place to start and your description of an older Paris sounds great! Thank you.

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