The Modiano titles that I’ve read so far, Little Jewel, Suspended Sentences, and this latest novel published by Yale University Press, all have a mysterious yet emotionally languid quality to them. It is both odd and compelling to mix these tones in a narrative but the author does it, quite successfully, in all three of these books.
Such Fine Boys describes a French boarding school for boys in the mid-twentieth century. Modiano’s description of The Valvert School in the first few pages of the book is strange and even a bit dark:
The Valvert School For Boys occupied the former property of a certain Valvert, who had been an intimate of the comte d’Artois and accompanied him into exile under the Revolution. Later, as an officer in the Russian army, he fell at the Battle of Austerlitz, fighting against his own countrymen in the uniform of the Izmailovsky Regiment. All that remained of him was his name and a pink marble colonnade, now half ruined, at the back of the park. My schoolmates and I were raised under that man’s morose tutelage, and perhaps some of us, without realizing it, still bear the traces.
The fourteen chapters in Such Fine Boys each contain a different story about a boy who attended the school. The young men that attend Valvert come from wealthy, aloof families who don’t have very much time to spend with their children and as a result they become melancholy, feckless adults. Most of the stories are told from the first person point-of-view by a man who is a former student at the school named Patrick. The author shares more than a name with his protagonist since Modiano also spent most of his young life in a French boarding school and saw very little of his parents. Another oddity of the novel is that two of the stories are told by a different narrator, another former student named Edmond who becomes a minor actor in a traveling theater troupe.
The narrator’s interaction with each of the boys at Valvert is overshadowed by a mysterious set of circumstances. A boy named Michel Karve, for example, is described as having a cold and formal relationship with his parents who don’t visit very often. Even though Michel’s parents are wealthy, the boy wears badly fitting clothes and is fed simple meals while his parents dine out with friends. Michel sends the narrator to his parent’s apartment to retrieve his few belongings and never wants to have anything to do with his parents again. As is typical in all fourteen vignettes in the book, the narrative raises many questions about Michel’s circumstances that are never fully explained.
The chapter that best illustrates the languid tone of Modiano’s stories is the one which describes an old schoolmate named Alain Charell. When the narrator meets Alain by chance at the Gare du Nord he reminisces about the boy he knew at school: “What had become of his parents? His father, with his saffron-yellow hair and mustache, looked like a major in the Indian Colonial forces. Had they disappeared, like their lawn and their Trianon? I didn’t dare ask.” Alain and his wife, Suzanne, have a bizarre open marriage and have sex with random strangers while the other spouse listens in the next room. They both seem to take quite a few drugs and one night, in particular, Suzanne suffers from the affects of whatever substance they are ingesting as she must be held up and taken to the restroom by her husband.
One night while the narrator is sleeping he receives a startling phone call from Alain who insists that he and his wife must see him. Alain says on the phone, “Come right away. It’s urgent.” When the narrator arrives at a brassiere, no details about the importance of such a sudden meeting are given; they sit for a while in the crowded restaurant and they eventually take a walk around the deserted city. The only word I could think of to describe these bizarre events and the tone with which they are conveyed is languid, unexpectedly languid:
After a while, Suzanne rested her head on my shoulder. They surely didn’t want me to leave, and I suddenly thought we might spend the entire night on this bench. On the other side of the empty street, from a tarpaulin-covered truck with its lights out, two men in black leather jackets were unloading sacks of coal with rapid, furtive movements, as if on the sly.
What was so urgent that the narrator was suddenly woken out of a sound sleep? Why didn’t he ask his friends these questions immediately? Perhaps, once again, it is something he didn’t dare ask.
Trevor at “The Mookse and the Gripes” has also reviewed this title as well as Modiano’s other latest release, Sundays in August: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/30/patrick-modiano-such-fine-boys/