Sometimes while reading Modiano’s books I feel the ghostliness of the past, and it works beautifully (I’m thinking of In the Café of Lost Youth, reviewed here); other times the books feel constructed from a series of references and tropes, plot and theme not quite coming together naturally (I’m thinking of So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, which had so much intrigue built in — Modiano is a master — but to little overall effect, at least to me at the time I read it). While I have admired Modiano’s books, to varying degrees, I had not fallen in love with any of his work, until now: his crime novel Sundays in August snuck up on me and struck me deeply. I loved it!
When it arrived, it was the first weekend of August. The sun was warm and I thought it would be fitting to read Sundays in August over a Sunday in August. Well, I was so involved I ended up finishing it that Saturday night. It certainly helped that I was in the mood for a crime novel, and here is how Yale introduces the book on their jacket copy:
Stolen jewels, black markets, hired guns, crossed lovers, unregistered addresses, people gone missing, shadowy figures disappearing in crowds, newspaper stories uncomfortably close and getting closer . . . This ominous novel is Patrick Modiano’s most noirish to date.
Crime and betrayal are certainly featured in many of Modiano’s works, but the kind of noirish, French Riviera, jewel-thieving crime is not particularly well represented in the ones I’ve read. So I when I picked it up I was looking forward to what sounded like a different side to Modiano. I will say that it wasn’t “fun” in the way we might think with that kind of plot description, but I didn’t care. Strangely, when looking for a “different side to Modiano” I think what I’ve found is the book that best explores the ideas for which he’s best known: memory, repression, pain, desire, loss, emptiness . . . eternal emptiness.
Sundays in August is powerfully built to move the reader forward from page one. We, like the troubled narrator (we learn several pages in that his name is Jean), dwell only partially in the present, willfully diving deeper into the story, seeking the moment where everything went wrong, but also tantalized by the moment when everything was right.
The book begins on the streets of Nice, France. Our narrator has been watching a street salesman, someone he once knew and was connected to through a mutual acquaintance: Sylvia. We don’t know that yet, though. All we get is the two men recognizing each other:
Eventually our eyes met. It was in Nice, at the start of Boulevard Gambetta. He was standing on a kind of platform in front of a display of leather coats and jackets, and I had slipped to the front of the group of people listening to him tout his wares.
When he saw me, his salesman’s patter faltered. He spoke more drily, as though wanting to establish a certain distance between himself and his listeners, to convey to me that this job he was doing on an outdoor platform was beneath him.
He hadn’t changed much in seven years — his face seemed more flushed, that was all.
It’s an intriguing opening, the narrator himself trying to convey a superiority. Indeed, the book feels quite hard-boiled as it opens, with lines from Jean like: “His voice still had its metallic tone, a metal that had rusted a little over the years.” Soon, though, we see that Jean is conveying more bitterness than superiority. The salesman is willing to talk to Jean, wants to talk in fact, to try to understand just what happened seven years ago with Sylvia. There’s a strange confession that we don’t quite understand; the salesman says: “Sylvia and I weren’t actually married. My mother opposed the marriage . . .” This statement pushes Jean deeper into his past, making him question it all. He’s experienced great loss — but now he has to wonder just what he lost.
Memorials of that loss are all over the place. He spent too much time in Nice with Sylvia, so by being nowhere she’s everywhere.
He kept walking, toward the Ruhl Casino and Jardin Albert I, leather bag on shoulder. All around me men and women, stiff as mummies, drank their tea in silence, eyes fixed on the Promenade des Anglais. Maybe they, too, were on the lookout for silhouettes from their past amid this crowd passing before their eyes.
The first third of the book is a wonderful depiction of the lonely, bitter Jean (“I always prefer living in a single room. It’s less sad. You can keep the illusion that you’re staying in a hotel.”). He can’t get all of this out of his mind (and we don’t know what it all is yet), but he also doesn’t want to talk to Sylvia’s husband who, it turns out, is not Sylvia’s husband.
After the first third, though, Jean finally opens the curtain for us and we go back. Jean and Sylvia were, we see (and we suspected already), criminal lovers working to make a big sale. Sylvia walks around with an ostentatious jewel called The Southern Cross. It’s not theirs, naturally; they are looking to cash in on a prior theft.
Because of the first third, we have some idea that things won’t work out as the two of them dream. Sylvia’s gone somewhere, Jean is alone, and no one is rich. By the end of the second third, we find out just what happened.
And here is where the book takes off. We’ve learned the basic plot of all that has come before and all that has happened since. What do we get in the last third, then? The beautiful picture of someone falling in love. This is what Jean has lost — or, rather, this is what he thinks he lost. The book is wonderfully ambiguous when it comes to Sylvia. Why did she lie to Jean in the first place about being married? Is her fate really what it seems? What we see is that Jean has not just lost Sylvia; he’s lost an innocence as well. And the book brings it all together so nicely in the final paragraph, a moment so beautiful and peaceful it makes all the others even blacker, where we finally see just what the title has to do with the book. Whatever happened, whatever the loss, all are painful, all are unacceptable, because all lead away from those beautiful Sundays in August.