Review - After the Circus, Patrick Modiano, Mark Polizzotti (Translation)

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

In the middle of the sixties, in Paris, a young man being questioned by the police is released and a waiting girl called straight in. He has no idea who she is and yet he then waits for her in a nearby café. They return to his apartment and spend the night in his room. Why is really not explained or explored. Nor is there any explanation of who these two are. Instead the reader is pulled immediately into something infused with doubt and restrained in its menace.

Whilst the blurb does clearly indicate that Patrick Modiano's writing style is to revisit motifs and episodes, it doesn't explain the stripped down, deceptively simple way in which he does that. In releasing small snippets of information about the boy at the centre of this story, then the girl, then the apartment, then the boy's father and his business contacts and finally the girl's associates, and her background, it's a style that means you're discovering much and at the same time, really so little. This is pencil sketch writing, lines drawn on the page designed to lead the reader to fill in the gaps, search for the overall structure, interpret the hints.

Balancing beautifully with that stripped down style is a sense of pace, movement, speed and the need for resolution. The story evolves quickly, over a period of just days, and in that short time there's also a sense of melancholy and worry. This young boy has already lost connection with his mother (who lives in another country) and his father seems to have left France under questionable circumstances. Now he's fallen rapidfire into something with this unknown woman / girl / and his longing for connection, and terror of being left, yet again are palpable. 

Although there's a lack of detailed information about the people, and the odd situation they find themselves in, the author has built a strong sense of the place in which it occurs. It could, however, be that this sort of almost travelogue detail of Paris would be frustrating for some, as there is the vague possibility always that by describing place, you're avoiding motivation. By concentrating on the beauty and intricacies of setting you're avoiding declaration. 

Whilst not one for fans of neat resolutions, there is no doubt AFTER THE CIRCUS is a most unusual novella that is utterly mesmerising. It definitely reminded this reader of watching French Film festivals. There's often something very unexpected, often something utterly incomprehensible, but there's always something intriguing and moving. 

Year of Publication

One of the hallmarks of French author Patrick Modiano’s writing is a singular ability to revisit particular motifs and episodes, infusing each telling with new detail and emotional nuance. In this evocative novel the internationally acclaimed author takes up one of his most compelling themes: a love affair with a woman who disappears, and a narrator grappling with the mystery of a relationship stopped short.

Set in mid-sixties Paris, After the Circus traces the relationship between the narrator, a young man not quite of legal age, and the slightly older, enigmatic woman he first glimpses at a police interrogation. The two lovers make their uncertain way into each other’s hearts, but the narrator soon finds himself in the unsettling, ominous presence of others. Who are these people? Are they real, or simply evoked? Part romance, part detective story, this mesmerizing book fully demonstrates Modiano’s signature use of atmosphere and suggestion as he investigates the perils and the exhilaration of young love. 

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