By Patrick Modiano
Translated from the French by Barbara Wright
Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, 1995
ISBN # 978-0-87923947-3
120 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2008

Bob Corbett August 2016

This novel is sparse, mysterious, puzzling, yet gripping and for me it became a real page turner where I just didn’t want to stop reading since I was so puzzled and even worried about what was coming next!

As the novel opens the narrator, Jean B., is on his way back to Paris and is in Milan for a train change. He goes to a bar to have a drink and sees a story on TV about a woman who has mysteriously died there in Milan. Jean is fascinated since he knew this woman from many years ago. He’d never forgotten her and is sort obsessed with memories of her which seems to be a part of his life ever since.

Jean is about 38 at the time of the novel. He is documentary film maker and tends to travel all over the world making his films. He is married; however, his wife is in an affair with his partner and close friend. However, Jean doesn’t seem to mind, yet he can’t really deal with the situation either.

In the course of the novel his mind is back and forth between the present and his difficult relationship with his wife, and his memories of the woman who died in Milan, Ingrid Theysen. He had met Ingrid and her husband, Rigard. This happened when Jean was 20 and had had his money stolen. He was hitchhiking to get back to Paris when he was picked up by this strange couple, Ingrid and Rigard. They seem to like him and convince him to accompany them to the southern coast of France. The year in 1942, the war is raging then and he comes to realize that Ingrid is Jewish and Rigard is trying to save her.

He ends up spending time with them, and eventually they give him money to return to Paris while, with help from some locals, the fugitive couple manages to survive the war in the south of France.

Just after the war Jean once again meets Ingrid on the streets of Paris and little by little he learns her story and remains simply fascinated, perhaps even fixated is more accurate, and can never forget her.

At the same time he is living a mess of a life with his wife in a completely open affair with his best friend and making no attempt or pretense to hide it. She even seems to expect that Jean will simply shake it all off and not really mind at all, which is just more than Jean can deal with.

So, he simply disappears into some off-the-beaten-track suburbs of Paris and he lives a quiet life, subtly keeping tabs on his wife, but obsessed with memories of Ingrid, the woman who killed herself in Milan.

Ingrid had once been a well-known movie actress. He learns the story of how they fled Paris in 1942 with a great deal of money and fled into Vichy France. Eventually, the people at the beach hotel become suspect, and one of the employees there finds out who this young couple is, and knows the fellow’s mother and hides them out in her mansion.

While Jean “disappears” inside Paris, he accidently left some clues and his wife’s lover finds him and begs him to return. Ironically, his wife wants him back, yet there isn’t any clear notion that she will not continue her affair with the man whom she sent to find her husband!

It is never really clear what it is about Ingrid and her story that so haunts and fascinates him. Perhaps he sees his own life as rather empty and somehow the story of this Jewish woman being saved in a daring life during the war is something that gives her a place of some honor or special interest in his otherwise rather meaningless life. We never discover what his motivations are.

The novel is sparse, gives the outlines of the story, but never a resolution, and relatively few details of events, even of significant events in Ingrid’s and his own life.

I did come away have been quite gripped by the novel, but never really knew what it was all about other than a description of the narrator’s strange yet fascinating life and thoughts.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu