Yesterday I reviewed my new favorite Patrick Modiano book, Sundays in August. But that was not the only Modiano book Yale University Press published this week. The other is the very different — though with enough similarities it is also clearly a Modiano book — Such Fine Boys. I was not nearly as excited about this one, but there were so many great things about it I didn’t want to neglect it either.
Such Fine Boys is composed of a series of vignettes, all about boys who attended Valvert School for Boys, a boarding school just outside of Paris in the early 1960s. Never having attended boarding school, I love boarding school novels — a couple I’ve reviewed here are Tobias Wolff’s Old School (here) and John Knowles’s A Separate Peace (here) — so I was really looking forward to Modiano’s take. As with Sundays in August, what I found was hardly what I was expecting.
Modiano begins his books by introducing us to something in the past: the landscape, that time around Valvert. While this is a story about those boys, Modiano makes Valvert and that time of their lives something they have to come to terms with much later. In the second story, just thirteen years after these boys left Valvert, we learn that the school has already been demolished:
I took the news with detachment, but the next day it left me feeling empty, like the silence and dust above a demolished wall.
Slowly, we begin to meet some of the boys, who are “accidental children, who belonged nowhere.” These are the children of well-to-do parents who are too busy for them. Valvert, then, serves not only as a school — not even primarily as a school — but also as a station for boys from these families at this point in life. It’s a place to put them. These are boys “damaged by their family situations.”
The family situation, and the good and bad days at Valvert, haunt them forever.
What could I tell her? That Bob wasn’t a bad man — far from it — but a sensitive, guileless boy who was looking for stability, otherwise he wouldn’t have chosen a girl like her? Unfortunately, we, the veterans of Valvert, were prone to inexplicable bouts of melancholy, waves of sadness that we tried to ward off each in our own way.
So I liked Such Fine Boys, all of its tales of boys running a way, getting kicked out, trying to form relationships, failing, dying, but I didn’t feel it came together as strongly as the other two books I mentioned above. It should be noted that Wolff and Knowles were also writing about the past from the perspective of boys who have lost a bit of innocence at school, though they are less forceful in that perspective, making it tangential rather than primary, as Modiano does here. I definitely prefer them, but Such Fine Boys may have opened even them up more for me by its focus. It is, still, a fine book.