Fiction – paperback; Yale University Press; 168 pages; 2017. Translated from the French by Damion Searls.
Patrick Modiano’s Sundays in August is essentially a jewel heist with a difference.
First published in 1986 under the French title Dimanches d’aout, it was translated into English — by Damion Searls in 2017 — after the author won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014.
Set in Nice, on the French Riviera, it is a perfectly paced and plotted noirish crime novella involving a photographer, his lover, her husband, a mysterious American couple — and a giant diamond known as the “Southern Cross”.
Setting the scene
When the book opens, the unnamed first-person narrator meets an acquaintance, Villecourt, from seven years earlier, a man he has never liked. They go for a drink. Villecourt wants to talk about Sylvia. Our narrator does not. We, the readers, do not know who Sylvia is — and so Modiano starts off as he means to go on, drip-feeding us clues and snippets of information, carefully holding things back and only revealing important facts when he thinks they are relevant.
We find out Sylvia was once married to Villecourt, but she ran away with our narrator and took a hugely valuable diamond with her. The pair hoped to sell it to someone who was rich enough to afford their asking price of more than a million — Francs? American dollars? It’s not specified, but it’s a lot of money.
For days and days, Sylvia and I had been waiting, motionless in places people were moving through: hotel bars and lobbies, café tables along the Promenade des Anglais. It seems to me now that we were weaving a gigantic, invisible spiderweb and waiting for someone to find their way into it.
Stumbling into the “web” comes a rich American, Virgil Neale, and his English wife, Barbara, who befriend the young French couple and court them with dinners out and invites for coffee. Later, comes a generous offer to buy the diamond which Sylvia wears around her neck, too scared to leave it unattended in the shabby pension they are living in.
Neal asked Sylvia, “So, you really want to sell your diamond?”
He leaned over to her and took the stone between his thumb and index finger, to examine it more closely. Then he gently placed it back onto her black sweater. I chalked it up to the offhand way Americans had. Sylvia hadn’t budged an inch; she looked off in another direction as if trying to ignore Neal’s gesture.
“Yes, we do,” I said.
From this one conversation, a series of events unfold in which things do not go according to plan — for either party.
Evocative and atmospheric
Sundays in August is an incredibly atmospheric tale and there’s a feeling of foreboding throughout. Who are the mysterious Neals? Where does Villecourt fit into the picture? And why has our narrator returned to the scene of the crime some seven years later?
The last few chapters deliver most of the answers, but even so, there’s no neat resolution; the reader is left to make up their own mind about what transpired.
What I loved most about Sundays in August is the way the narrative keeps shape-shifting so that the reader is never quite sure who to trust. Is the narrator reliable, for instance? (Plot spoiler: I think he is.)
Through the use of carefully timed flashbacks and foreshadowing, Modiano delivers a superlative story arc that comes completely full circle so that it’s not until the very end that we can see how the events that occurred seven years earlier played out.
I totally loved this book. It does everything I look for in a crime novella. It has great, morally dubious characters, snap-fire dialogue, a slow build-up of suspense, an evocative setting, expert plotting and an unpredictable storyline. Five stars.
Patrick Modiano is fast becoming a favourite author; my other reviews of his work are here.
14 thoughts on “‘Sundays in August’ by Patrick Modiano (translated by Damion Searls)”
Noirish crime novella by a Nobel prize-winner sounds pretty irresistible, really. I should look out for him.
You should! This one was so clever. So much more I wanted to say about this book but didn’t want to give away plot spoilers so it was a bit hard to review…
Books like that are. I’ll put it on my reading group schedule suggestions.
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You’ve mentioned Modiano before. I’m taking note!
Yes… a whole 11 days ago! 😆
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Yup, I remembered!
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I have enjoyed all the books I’ve read by him just looked back not read any since 2018 he tends be great at noir feels to his work and atmosphere I have found
This is my third Modiano and the second I have read in a fortnight! I borrowed another one from the library yesterday and picked up another on sale recently, so expect a couple more reviews coming soon! As you say, he’s very good at creating mood and atmosphere…
What an enticing review you wrote! This book seems to contain all of my favorite elements, and I am already quite fond of Damion Searls as a translator. I so want to read this, thanks!
I’ve not come across Damion Searls before… but I don’t tend to read much French fiction and presume that’s what he specialises in? Please do hunt out a copy of this… it’s so good. Very quick to read but so much to discuss in it!
Okay, I really must prioritise my Modiano’s – they sound perfect for Paris in July.
Yes, they would be… although this one is set in Nice, not Paris.
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It doesn’t sound right, a crime writer winning the Nobel – the same Nobel Bob Dylan won, so maybe it doesn’t sound so bad, though I still associate Nobelish writing with impenetrable novelists like Gerald Murnane and Alexis Wright, though apparently the judges don’t.
Audible have Modiano in Hindi, German and French but not English (and they’re all very short, 3-4 hours) so he might have to wait a while to get on my reading list.
I’m not sure you could describe him as a crime writer, though clearly this novella is about a crime, because he’s more obsessed with memory and history. I’ve read three books now and those themes are in each one.
According to Wikipedia, “In more than 40 books, Modiano used his fascination with the human experience of World War II in France to examine individual and collective identities, responsibilities, loyalties, memory, and loss.”
His work actually reminds me a little of Norwegian writer Per Petterson who works his themes (working class life, memory and loss) over and over in a similar way and adopting a similar bare bones prose style.