This post takes a look at two French novellas, different yet similar in many ways – they are haunting, gripping, set in and around Paris, and narrated in first person where the narrator is not really the central character. While I have reviewed a Patrick Modiano novella on this blog before – After the Circus, Barbéris is completely new to me. Long story short, both these novellas are excellent.

INVISIBLE INK – Patrick Modiano (tr. Mark Polizzotti)

Invisible Ink is classic Modiano fare, a murky, haunting, atmospheric tale of memory, illusion and identity.

Our narrator is Jean Eyben who recalls a case he was assigned, nearly thirty years ago, during his brief stint as a private detective at the Hutte Detective Agency. Displaying a file containing a sheet with the scantest of information, Mr Hutte outlines what Jean is required to do. He has to locate a woman called Noelle Lefebvre, who has disappeared without a trace, practically vanished into thin air. To complicate matters, her identity is also called into question – she may not be who she says she is.

Jean’s task is divided into three steps – first ask the concierge of a certain apartment building in the 15th arrondissement whether he has heard from Noelle; second, make his way to the General Delivery window of the post office and use Noelle’s card to retrieve her mail, and then stop at the café where Noelle spent a lot of her days and ask around about her. When the first two tasks culminate in a dead end, Jean proceeds to the café Noelle frequently haunted, hoping to pick up some sort of clue.

There he runs into Gerard Mourade, Noelle’s acquaintance and an aspiring actor, who reveals that Noelle was married to Roger Behaviour and lived in the same neighbourhood as the café. But Roger’s whereabouts also remain unknown.

Meanwhile, there’s the client himself – Georges Brainos – who has approached the Hutte Agency for the purpose of locating Noelle, leaving Jean to wonder what Brainos’ motive could possibly be. One day, on intercepting a letter meant for Noelle from the General Delivery, it dawns on Jean that Noelle had wed Sancho Lefebvre, and the mystery only deepens.

As the years roll on by, and even much after Jean is no longer employed at the agency, he manages to amass information in bits and pieces from various people who circled Noelle’s orbit, but no one can shed any meaningful light on either her true identity or her whereabouts.

It’s not a case that Jean single–mindedly broods over as time passes, but it hasn’t been completely erased from his mind either. What’s more, there remain substantial memory gaps that he can’t account for.

There’s something about Noelle’s case that holds a spell over him. Could it be that he had come across her, met her in the past, but had no inkling of her name?

Invisible Ink, then, is a beautifully written, elegiac and moody novella about the passage of time and the elusive nature of memories, how memories whether deliberately or subconsciously buried deep in our minds can suddenly resurface when confronted with certain triggers. But even then, those memories are seemingly never whole, but jagged pieces mired in uncertainty. The passage of time, particularly, leaves in its wake big memory holes impossible to fill.

Truth be told, I’ve never owned a datebook and never kept a diary. It would have made my job easier. But I didn’t want to quantify my life. I let it flow by, like mad money that slips through your fingers. I wasn’t careful. When I thought about the future, I told myself that none of what I had lived through would ever be lost. None of it. I was too young to know that after a certain point, you start tripping over gaps in your memory.

The central character haunting the novella’s pages is, of course, the enigmatic Noelle Lefebvre, whose disappearance decades ago has clearly left a deep impression on Jean’s mind. Some details do emerge – she worked at a dance club owned by Georges Brainos who also had another restaurant to his name. But connecting all these dots does not make the job of finding her any easier.

As he tries to rake up the past in his quest for Noelle, Jean realizes that his memories are as elusive as the woman he is trying to find. Noelle is a paradox, both a presence (as a point of obsession for our narrator), and an absence in many ways. Is she even real or just a ghost, a figment of imagination?

Indeed, Jean’s investigation is fraught with abstract conclusions and the absence of any concrete forms or meaningful results. Things are hinted at, not effectively proven, until it all moves towards a fascinating finale.

Ultimately, experiencing Invisible Ink is like staring through a rain-soaked windowpane with its hazy views, blurred contours, distorted images, all seeped in a tincture of melancholia. Haunting, mysterious and unforgettable.

A SUNDAY IN VILLE d’AVRAY – Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

In terms of mood and atmosphere, the qualities of a Modiano novel are reflected in A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray too – the air of melancholia and sadness. This is a dreamy, disquieting novella of missed opportunities, a particular yearning for ‘something else’, set over the course of a languid autumn afternoon when the light is quickly fading.

The book begins when our narrator Jane, one Sunday, decides to visit her sister Claire Marie, who resides in Ville-d’Avray in the western suburbs of Paris. Comfortably settled in her well-appointed home with her husband Christian and her daughter Melanie, Claire Marie many a time assists Christian in his medical practice by stepping into the shoes of a receptionist. Otherwise, she is mostly left to her own devices stifled by boredom and seclusion of this calm, leafy suburb. Jane, on the other hand, is settled in the centre of Paris with her partner Luc – both prefer the hustle bustle of city life, its culture and entertainment to the quiet existence in the outskirts.

Jane and Claire Marie seldom see each other, in fact Jane’s visits to Ville-d’Avray are pretty rare. While the distance is an issue, her partner Luc hates visiting the place because he finds Claire Marie boring and the dullness of their lives gets on his nerves.

On that particular autumn afternoon, however, Jane makes a visit to Ville-d’Avray on her own. As she settles in the garden outside waiting for her sister to come out with drinks, a gamut of memories flood her mind. Those flashbacks particularly dwell on the sisters’ lonely, isolated childhood, those dreary Sundays when the hours dragged on interminably as both the sisters engaged actively in a make-believe world filled with wild landscapes and romance conjured up by books they read, notably Jane Eyre. For the people around them, those Sunday evenings mostly invoked feelings of fear – of seeing the day end, or of stirring up an antique sadness.

As the sisters finally sit down for a chat, Claire Marie makes a dramatic revelation of a chance encounter in her life several years ago, a confession that startles Jane considerably. As Claire Marie goes on to furnish the details, we learn of how she first met this man in the waiting room of her husband’s practice. When she bumps into him again some days later on her way home, the two of them start talking and he convinces her to share a drink with him at a pub. Revealing his name as Hermann, he shares his story of his “other life” in communist Hungary, how he escapes that country to choose a life of exile abroad. It’s a story that seems as shadowy as his import-export business he claims to own.

Will Claire Marie give in to his charms? Does she have it in her to disrupt her carefully constructed idyll at home for the sake of an out-of-the box experience that marks a break from her everyday routine?

While Jane is our narrator, it is Claire Marie really who is the nucleus of the book. Despite her outwardly unruffled and passive demeanour, she unsettles Jane greatly. Jane recalls how several years ago, Claire Marie stumped her with the loaded question – “Are there ever times when you dream of something else?” It’s a question that gets under Jane’s skin and makes her wonder whether her sister is happy with the life she has chosen.

What of Claire Marie? We are told that as a child, Claire Marie had a dreamy disposition, living in a world of her own, often staring out of the window for hours on end, waiting for exactly what? Did the world outside signify something infinitely better than her lonely existence at home?

Claire Marie noticed that, without thinking, she was going more and more often to the window and looking out, the way she’d done when she was little. All night long on the border (so he’d told her), searchlights would illuminate the barbed-wire fences and the watchtowers; and when she looked out at her street, those luminous circles and those pockets of darkness were what she’d see, as they’d been seen in former times by people desperate to leave, to change their lives.

As Jane grows up and transforms into a more practical adult, Claire Marie never really grows out of her passive, not-in-this-world persona, and Jane is often left to ponder what her sister expects from her life.

The themes touched upon in this wonderfully evocative novella are the consequences of a path not taken, the weight of unfulfilled desires, and the wish for a unique experience. Is a life of contentment preferable to one that boasts of drama and intrigue? The mood and tone captured is excellent – feverish, deeply unsettling and rife with lurking dangers as Claire Marie wanders alone in the dense forest and near the ponds depicted in Corot paintings.

I could practically see my sister strolling with her stranger in a setting composed of reflections, of beautiful trees, of leaves speckled with tiny light-coloured patches, like eye floaters, as if the blurriness of dreams interposed itself between the image and the beholder (which is always the case with Corot).

The flavor of autumn is also superbly realized, a time when the mornings and evenings are drenched in chilly, torrential rains; the gardens are darkened with showers; the asphalt and slate roofs glisten with water; the brown leaves lie sodden in heaps. An aura of ruin, desolation can be felt all around where patches of reflected light alternate with shadows settling in.

Set during an afternoon that is burnished the colour of molten gold, like the light that shimmers over the sea, A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, then, is a haunting, elegantly written novella where the tension is palpable under a seemingly calm surface. It’s a novella that throbs with dreamlike vibes, fraught melancholia and wistful longing and is perfect for any quiet, cosy afternoon with a hot mug of tea.

2 thoughts on “Two Atmospheric French Novellas – Patrick Modiano & Dominique Barbéris

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