Triste. French for “sad.” And that’s the mood of this short novel from Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano.
Villa Triste opens with the narrator wandering around a decrepit French resort town on the Swiss border where, in the 1960s, while he was a spry, idealistic young 18-year-old, he had a summer fling. Having fled Paris for reasons not clearly identified, the young man assumes the false identity of a Russian count, one Victor Chmara. At first, “Victor” just wants to blend in with the crowds in the bustling resort town; he wanders from casino to café to hotel like a ghost. But he is quickly noticed by two strangers—a young, beautiful, aspiring actress named Yvonne and her young doctor friend, Meinthe. Together they whisk Victor away from hiding and into a world of debauchery, beauty pageants, and late-night parties. While that sounds exciting, nothing of it is; in the end it’s all just sad. All too soon, summer comes to an end, and Victor realizes that he needs to return to reality, but his two friends want nothing to do with it. They want to live in their make-believe.
Modiano’s work is a story about nothing. We learn little about Yvonne. We know nothing about Meinthe’s secret work in Switzerland. Even Victor’s fears are left vague. The reader is dropped into a summer of fun that ends as quickly as it began. But in that nothing is a story about innocence and lost youth. Modiano is able to weave a story of a summer of fake identities and mystery into a revelation of our own search for identity and loss.
Ultimately, Villa Triste is anything but sad, but rather a languid and mysterious read.
Review originally appeared in the Historical Novels Review August 2016