Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Patrick Modiano, Publisher, Setting, Yale University Press

‘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.

Author, Book review, Janet Malcolm, New York, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, Yale University Press

‘Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial’ by Janet Malcolm

Iphigenia-in-forest-hills

Non-fiction – hardcover; Yale University Press; 155 pages; 2011.

I do like a good narrative non-fiction book that looks at the darker side of humanity — and Janet Malcolm‘s Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial is one of those books that could best be described as my cup of tea.

The book’s title has its roots in Greek mythology. Depending on which version of the myth you hear — and there are several — Iphigenia was the innocent daughter that Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces at Troy, had to sacrifice to appease Artemis, whom he had offended. Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, was so upset by her daughter’s death that she kills her husband as an act of vengeance.

But in Malcolm’s true-life tale, “Iphigenia” is a four-year-old child that is “sacrificed” as part of a divorce settlement. The father, having won custody, is later killed — by a hit man. The book does not focus on the finer details of the custody dispute, but on the abhorrent murder which happened following it and then the machinations of the subsequent trial.

The case goes something like this. A 34-year-old mother and physician, Mazoltuv Borukhova, is accused of hiring an assassin to kill her estranged husband, Daniel Malakov, a well respected orthodontist. The “hit” occurred in broad daylight, at the gates of a playground in the Queens district of New York, within feet of the couple’s four-year-old daughter, Michelle. The motivation for the crime is claimed to be vengeance: a month earlier Malakov had been granted custody of Michelle, despite claims by Dr Borukhova that her husband sexually abused their daughter.

This is a murky case — Malcolm describes it as an enigma, because Dr Borukhova “couldn’t have done it and she must have done it” — but the author’s focus is not so much on the events leading up to it, nor the motivations, but the way in which justice is played out in the courtroom.

Most of us understand the adversarial system of justice in which the prosecution presents the evidence and the defence disputes it. But few of us have seen it in action firsthand. Malcolm gives us a ringside seat as Borukhova and her hitman, Mikhail Mallayev, are put on trial at Queens Supreme Court in 2009 and dissects what is happening with rare insight.

“A trial is a contest between competing narratives”, she writes.

If any profession (apart from the novelist’s) is in the business of making things up, it is the profession of the trial lawyer. The “evidence” in trials is the thread out of which lawyers spin their tales of guilt or innocence.

This evidence, she suggests, is often highly malleable. The likelihood of a successful prosecution also rests on jury selection — which isn’t always impartial — and which judge presides over the case. In this instance, the trial judge, Robert Hanophy, had such a long track record of rarely acquitting anyone on the stand that he had been nicknamed “Hang ’em Hanophy” (Malcolm’s portrait of him is not particularly flattering, and she even goes so far as to call him a “petty tyrant”.)

Of course, how the jury — and the media — perceive the accused has a role to play, too. Here’s Malcolm’s description of Borukhova:

She was a small, thin woman of arresting appearance. Her features were delicate, and her skin had a gray pallor. At the hearings, she was dressed in a mannish black jacket and a floor-length black skirt, and she wore her long, dark, tightly curled hair hanging down her back, bound by a red cord. She looked rather like a nineteenth-century woman-student revolutionary. For the trial proper (perhaps on advice), she changed her appearance. She put her hair up and wore light-coloured jackets and patterned long skirts. She looked pretty and charming, if undernourished.

What makes this book so readable is Malcolm’s narrative. This is not a dry, coolly distant analysis: it’s raw and immediate and feels all the more compelling for it.

Reporting the case for the New Yorker, where Malcolm is a staff writer, she includes her own views and reactions to the events happening in the court room. At at one point she even inserts herself in the story — “something I have never done before as a journalist” — by alerting the prosecution to the fact that Michelle’s court-appointed guardian, David Schnall, had admitted some rather kooky ideas in an interview he granted her (one of his ideas was the the world was a “place of hidden evil under the control of a Communist-like system” among other rants).

Malcolm also puts her journalistic skills to good use by befriending Borukhova’s family, not an easy thing to do given they belong to a rather closed, insular community of Bukharan Jews living in Forest Hills, New York. (Her visits with them are highly reminiscent of Helen Garner’s visits with Jo Cinque’s family in Joe Cinque’s Consolation — once she wins their trust, they reveal a lot of pain, confusion, anger and bitterness.)

But as much as I enjoyed this book, it felt too short — the ending is especially abrupt — and there are some aspects that could have been fleshed out. Still, it’s a slightly unnerving read, and I came away from it, not quite sure whether justice had, indeed, been done. And I rather suspect that’s exactly how Malcolm feels about the case, too…