I just finished a short novel called After the Circus by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti. It caught my eye at the library because I know one of the critics who is excerpted on the back: Sam Sacks, who writes for the Wall Street Journal, and an old friend of my husband’s. The two of them and a third critic founded a review website called Open Letters and are among the most well-read people I’ve met. At the time that Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, none of them had ever heard of him. One gets the impression that no one quoted on the jacket had read him; they are post-prize assessments, a la “all in all, quite an endearing Nobelist.” In any case, Sam’s blurb (“the writing conveys a sense of dreamy unease in which the real, the hypothesized, and the half-forgotten blend in to a shimmering vagueness”) intrigued me.
For the first 15 pages or so, I kept forgetting that I wasn’t reading A Sport and a Pastime, which I read half of and abandoned earlier this year. It’s not that Modiano’s prose is like James Salter’s, but the setting and setup are similar—an attractive young man meets an attractive young woman in Paris; there is lust and shimmering vagueness. But unlike Salter, After the Circus veers off in a noir-y direction, reminiscent of Paul Auster. The woman is seemingly on the run, mixed up with bad people. The atmosphere is tense and edgy. People are always threatening to appear from the shadows or disappear into them. Modiano employs a kind of cinematic trick where every café has “red imitation-leather” seats and every remembered character is blond; Gisele’s eyes are always “pale blue.” You end up picturing the events in black & white, with partial colorization. When the tension finally breaks, it’s not in the way you expected.
At just under 200 pages with large print, it’s really a novella—I realized earlier this year, after reading Women by Chloe Caldwell and Walks with Men by Ann Beattie, that the novella is uniquely suited to a story of a love affair. I believe After the Circus would be best read on a train.
Also this week, I read Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer, a prose text by a poet. I’ve become averse to the term “prose poem,” since we only seem to call short prose pieces poems when we associate the author more with poetry than prose; but “lyric essay” doesn’t quite fit either, because these pieces mostly don’t have an airy, leaping quality; they are almost stern, and theoretical. It’s about illness as metaphor, capital as metaphor, the possibility of happiness. (The poet Sandra Simonds once said, “I am not even convinced happiness is ethical.”) Happiness is treated as a learned response to gaps in suffering: “It was in this brief period that I could hold a visceral memory of having been miserable firmly enough to appreciate almost being sick no more that I experienced something like happiness.”
Elisa Gabbert is the author of The Self Unstable and The French Exit. L’Heure Bleue, or The Judy Poems is forthcoming next year from Black Ocean. Recent poems and essays have appeared in Jubilat, Harvard Review, Threepenny Review, The Smart Set, The Butter, Catapult, and Electric Literature.
Editor’s note: one of our favorite things to do is ask our favorite writers what they’ve been reading lately–thus this column was born. If you’re interested in contributing a column, email Nate here.