Villa triste, p.1
Villa Triste, page 1
ALSO BY PATRICK MODIANO
Lacombe Lucien: The Screenplay
A Trace of Malice
Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas
Out of the Dark
The Search Warrant
So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood
Copyright © Éditions Gallimard, 1975
First published in French as Villa Triste by Éditions Gallimard, Paris, in 1975
English translation © Other Press, 2016
Production editor: Yvonne E. Cárdenas
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from Other Press LLC, except in the case of brief quotations in reviews for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast. For information write to Other Press LLC, 267 Fifth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10016. Or visit our Web site: www.otherpress.com
The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
Names: Modiano, Patrick, 1945- | Cullen, John, 1942- translator.
Title: Villa triste / by Patrick Modiano; translated from the French by John Cullen.
Other titles: Villa triste. English
Description: New York : Other Press,  | “First published in French as Villa Triste by Editions Gallimard, Paris, in 1975.”
Identifiers: LCCN 2015037068 | ISBN 978-1-59051-767-3 (paperback) | ISBN 978-1-59051-768-0 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Alienation (Social psychology)—Fiction. | Identity (Psychology)—Fiction. | France—Social life and customs—20th century—Fiction.
Classification: LCC PQ2673.O3 V5713 2016 | DDC 843/.914—dc23 LC record available at http://lccn.loc.gov/2015037068
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Other Books by This Author
They’ve torn down the Hôtel Verdun. It was an odd building bordered by a rotting wooden veranda, and it stood across from the train station. Commercial travelers would stop there to sleep between two trains. It had a reputation as a hotel that rented rooms by the hour. The rotunda-shaped café next door has also disappeared. Was it called the Dials Café, or maybe the Café of the Future? In any case, now there’s a big vacant space between the station and Place Albert I.
Rue Royale, on the other hand, hasn’t changed a bit, but because the season is winter and the hour late, you feel like you’re walking through a ghost town. You pass shop windows — the Chez Clément Marot bookstore, Horowitz the jeweler’s (“Deauville, Geneva, Le Touquet”), the Fidel-Berger English pastry shop — and then, farther on, the René Pigault hairdressing salon. The Henri à la Pensée windows. Most of these luxury shops are closed during the off-season. When you reach the arcades, you can see the red and green neon lights of the Cintra shining at the end on your left. On the opposite sidewalk, at the corner of Rue Royale and Place du Pâquier, is the Taverne, once a popular meeting place for young people. Does it still have the same clientele today?
Nothing remains of the big café, with its chandeliers and mirrors and the umbrella tables that overflowed onto the pavement. Around eight o’clock in the evening, there would be people moving about from table to table and forming little groups. Bursts of laughter. Blond hair. Clinking glasses. Straw hats. From time to time, a beach robe would add a dash of bright color. Everyone was getting ready for the night’s festivities.
Over there on the right is the Casino, a massive white structure open only from June to September. In the winter, local burghers play bridge twice a week in the baccarat room and the department’s Rotary Club holds its meetings in the grill room. Behind the Casino, the Albigny Park slopes very gently down to the lake and its weeping willows, its bandstand, and the wharf where you can catch the dilapidated boat that shuttles from one small lakeside village to another: Veyrier, Chavoires, Saint-Jorioz, Éden-Roc, Port-Lusatz … Too much cataloging. But there are some words you have to sing to yourself over and over, tirelessly, to a lullaby tune.
You follow Avenue d’Albigny, which is lined with plane trees. It runs along the lake, and at the moment when it curves to the right, you spot a white wooden portal: the entrance to the Sporting Club. A gravel drive, with several tennis courts on either side. Beyond them — all you have to do to remember is close your eyes — the long row of bathing huts and the sandy beach, nearly three hundred meters long. In the background, an English-style garden surrounds the Sporting Club’s restaurant and bar, which stands on the site of an old orangery. This all forms a peninsula, which at the turn of the twentieth century belonged to the automobile manufacturer Gordon-Gramme.
Opposite the Sporting Club, on the other side of Avenue d’Albigny, Boulevard Carabacel begins. It twists and turns up to the Hermitage, Windsor, and Alhambra hotels, or you can take the cable car. In summer it runs until midnight, and you wait for it in a little station that looks like a chalet from the outside. The vegetation here is thoroughly mixed, it’s hard to tell if you’re in the Alps, on the shores of the Mediterranean, or somewhere in the tropics. Umbrella pines. Mimosas. Fir trees. Palms. If you take the boulevard up the hillside, you discover the panorama: the entire lake, the Aravis mountains, and across the water, the elusive country known as Switzerland.
The Hermitage and the Windsor now house only furnished apartments. However, no one has bothered to take out the Windsor’s revolving door or the sun lodge at one end of the Hermitage’s lobby. Remember? It was invaded by bougainvillea. The Windsor dated from around 1910, and its white façade had the same meringue-like appearance as the façades of the Ruhl and the Négresco in Nice. The ocher-colored Hermitage was more sober and more majestic. It resembled the Royal hotel in Deauville — like a twin, actually. Have they really been converted into apartment buildings? No lights at the windows. You’d have to be brave enough to walk through the dark hallways and climb the stairs. Then maybe you’d see for yourself that nobody lives here.
As for the Alhambra, it’s been razed to the ground. There’s no trace of the gardens that once encircled it. Plans are surely afoot to build a modern hotel on the site. It costs me a negligible effort of memory to recall that in summer the gardens of the Hermitage, the Windsor, and the Alhambra closely corresponded to an image of the Garden of Paradise or the Promised Land. But which of the three had the immense bed of dahlias and the balustrade you leaned on to look out over the lake below? It doesn’t matter. We must have been the last witnesses to that little world.
It’s very late on a winter night. On the other side of the lake, you can barely make out the misty lights of Switzerland. There’s nothing left of the luxuriant Carabacel vegetation but some dead trees and stunted bushes. The façades of the Windsor and the Hermitage are black, as though charred.
The cafés are closed. A pink light filters under the door of the Cintra. Shall we go in and see whether the mahogany paneling has changed and the lamp with the tartan shade is in its proper place to the left of the bar? They haven’t removed the photographs of Émile Allais, taken at Engelberg when he won the world skiing championship. Or those of James Couttet. Or the one of Daniel Hendrickx. They’re all lined up above the rows of aperitif bottles. Of course, the photos have yellowed somewhat. And in the semidarkness, the only customer, a red-faced man wearing a checked jacket, is distractedly groping the barmaid. In the early 1960s, she had a harsh beauty, but since then she’s gained weight.
You can hear the sound of your own footsteps as you walk along the deserted Rue Sommeiller. On your left, the Regent cinema is the same as it ever was: it’s still got the orange roughcast façade, and REGENT is still spelled out in English-style, plum-colored letters. Nevertheless, they must have modernized the inside and changed the wooden seats and the Harcourt portraits of film stars that decorated the lobby. The station square is the only place in the town where some lights are still on and a few signs of life still visible. The Paris express is due at six minutes past midnight. Soldiers on leave from the Berthollet barracks arrive in noisy little groups, carrying their metal or cardboard suitcases. Some of the young men sing “O Christmas Tree,” no doubt because the season is approaching. They cluster together on platform 2, whacking one another on the back. You’d think they were leaving for the front. Among all those military overcoats, a civilian suit, beige in color. The man who’s wearing it doesn’t seem to suffer from the cold; he clasps the green silk scarf around his neck with a nervous hand. He goes from group to group, turning his head left and right with a distraught expression, as if searching for a single face in all that crowd. In fact, he’s just asked a soldier a question, but the young man and his two companions answer him only with derisive looks. Other soldiers turn and whistle as he passes them. He pretends to pay them no attention and nibbles on his cigarette holder. Now he’s standing off to one side with a young and very blond soldier in the elite Chasseurs Alpins, the Alpine Hunters. The youngster looks embarrassed and from time to time glances furtively at his comrades. The man in the suit leans on his shoulder and whispers something in his ear. The young chasseur tries to break away. Then the man slips an envelope into the soldier’s overcoat pocket, looks at him without saying anything, and as it’s beginning to snow, turns up the collar of his jacket.
The man’s name is René Meinthe. He abruptly raises his left hand to his forehead and leaves it there like a visor. A dozen years ago, this was a familiar gesture of his. How he’s aged …
The train has pulled into the station. The soldiers storm aboard, jostle one another in the corridors, lower the windows, pass suitcases through them. Some sing “Auld Lang Syne,” but the majority prefer to bellow “O Christmas Tree.” It’s snowing harder. Meinthe stands there unmoving, still holding up his hand like a visor. The towhead observes him through the window with a slightly cruel smile playing on his young lips. He fiddles with his uniform beret. Meinthe waves to him. The carriages move off, carrying away their clusters of singing, waving soldiers.
With his hands thrust into his jacket pockets, he heads for the restaurant in the station. The two waiters are clearing the tables and sweeping up around them with broad, languid gestures. Behind the bar, a man in a raincoat is putting up the last glasses. Meinthe orders a cognac. The barman curtly informs him that the bar is closed. Meinthe again orders a cognac.
“In this place,” the man replies, lingering on each syllable, “in this place, we don’t serve fairies.”
And the two waiters behind him burst into laughter. Meinthe doesn’t move; he stares at a point somewhere before his eyes and looks exhausted. One of the waiters has switched off the lights on the left-hand wall. The yellowish glow around the bar is the only remaining illumination. They’re waiting with folded arms. Are they going to bust his face? Or, I don’t know, maybe Meinthe’s going to slam his hand down on the grimy counter and declare, “I am Astrid, QUEEN OF THE BELGIANS!” posing and laughing in his old insolent way.
What was I doing, at the age of eighteen, on the shore of that lake, in that fashionable spa resort? Nothing. I was living in a boardinghouse, the Lindens, on Boulevard Carabacel. I could have opted for a room in town, but I preferred to be on the high ground, steps away from the Windsor, the Hermitage, and the Alhambra, whose luxury and dense gardens reassured me.
Because I was scared to death, a sensation I’ve never been without; but in those days it was much more vehement, and much more irrational. I had fled Paris, convinced that the city was becoming dangerous for people like me. A disagreeable, police-heavy atmosphere prevailed there. Far too many roundups for my taste. Exploding bombs. I’d like to be precise in my chronology, and since the best reference points are provided by wars, the question is, Which war was going on then? It was the one known as the Algerian War, at the very beginning of the 1960s, a period when people drove around in Floride convertibles and women dressed badly. So did men. As for me, I was afraid, even more than I am today, and I’d chosen that place of refuge because it was five kilometers from the Swiss border. At the first sign of danger, all I had to do was cross the lake. Naïve as I was, I thought the closer you got to Switzerland, the better your chances of coming out all right. I didn’t yet know that Switzerland doesn’t exist.
The “season” had started on June 15. Galas and festivities would follow hard on one another. The “Ambassadors’ ” dinner at the Casino. Appearances by the singer Georges Ulmer. Three performances of Listen Up, Gentlemen. The Chavoires golf club’s July 14 fireworks display, the Marquis de Cuevas ballet, and other events I’d be able to recall if I had the tourist office’s printed program in my hands. I kept it, and I’m sure it’s stuck in the pages of one of the books I was reading that year. But which one? The weather was “magnificent,” and the regular visitors predicted sunny days all the way until October.
I very seldom went swimming. In general, I spent my days in the lobby and gardens of the Windsor, and in the end I persuaded myself that there, at least, I was safe. When I was overcome by panic — a flower that opened its petals slowly, just above my navel — I would stare out across the lake. You could see a village from the Windsor’s gardens. Barely five kilometers away, straight ahead. You could swim that far. At night, in a small motorboat, the trip would take about twenty minutes. For sure. I tried to calm down. I whispered to myself, articulating each syllable: “At night, in a little motorboat …” That made everything better, and I went back to reading my novel or some innocuous magazine. (I’d forbidden myself to read newspapers or listen to radio bulletins. Every time I went to the movies, I took care to arrive after the newsreel.) No, it was best to avoid knowing anything about the fate of the world. Best not to aggravate that fear, that feeling of imminent disaster. Concentrate on trivialities: fashion, literature, cinema, variety shows. Stretch out on the long deck chairs, close your eyes, and relax. Above all, relax. Forget. Right?
Toward the end of the afternoon, I’d go down into t
At eight o’clock, I went back to the Lindens for dinner. The boardinghouse, whose exterior reminded me of a hunting lodge, welcomed about a dozen regular customers each summer. They were all over sixty, and my presence irritated them at first. But I breathed with great discretion. By means of scanty gestures, deliberately lifeless eyes, and a set face — blinking as little as possible — I strove to avoid aggravating an already precarious situation. They recognized my goodwill, and I think that in the end they looked on me more favorably.
We took our meals in a rustic Savoy-style dining room. I could have conversed with my nearest neighbors, a dapper elderly couple from Paris, but certain hints suggested that the man was a former police inspector. The other tables were also occupied by couples, except for a gentleman with a thin mustache and a spaniel face who gave the impression of having been abandoned there. From time to time, through the hubbub of conversations, I could hear his hiccups, brief outbursts like barks. The guests would move into the lounge and sigh as they sat down on the cretonne-covered armchairs. Madame Buffaz, the proprietress of the Lindens, would serve herbal tea or some after-dinner drink. The women would talk among themselves. The dog-faced gentleman, sitting off to one side, would sadly light a Havana cigar and observe the game.
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