In his fourth novel, first published in 1975, Nobel Prize–winning French writer Modiano develops his now-trademark demimonde of secrets kept and personae doffed and donned.
The time is 1960, the setting a small resort town alongside an alpine lake somewhere within easy distance of the Franco-Swiss border. Hovering on the horizon is the dark cloud of the Algerian War. An 18-year-old boy has come to that town from Paris: “A disagreeable, police-heavy atmosphere prevailed there. Far too many roundups for my taste. Exploding bombs.” The choice of venue is deliberate, for in this little town the protagonist can idle the days away without drawing any unnecessary attention—and if attention does center on him, he can slip away across the lake. “I didn’t yet know,” he says meaningfully, “that Switzerland doesn’t exist.” Given to gloom and panic, he takes on an improbable pseudonym but keeps to himself, walling himself off in the mountains. Yet—well, cherchez la femme, and la femme will turn up, this time in the form of the beautiful Yvonne Jacquet, who lives a luxurious life of villas, Great Danes, and sports cars between film auditions. “You understand, she’s here incognito,” hisses her companion, a so-called doctor elegant of scarf and cigarette—and a man who himself has a lot to hide. (He often boasts that he has practiced medicine in Switzerland, at which our protagonist thinks, “each time I felt like asking him, ‘What kind of medicine?’ ") One theory of hiding successfully, the reader supposes, might be to surround oneself with people with even greater reasons to keep a low profile, but for all that, these people live as if their lives depended on being recognized—typically mysterious Modiano behavior, in other words, with shades of Giorgio Bassani and Graham Greene.
Not much happens in these elegantly written pages, but the atmospherics are perfect: a brilliant evocation of place, memory, and loss, shot through with an aching nostalgia.