Pointless book! I really have nothing left over anymore for pointless ramblings. Books should have something to say, and this book says absolutely nothing. I don’t understand Modiano’s passion or fascination or OBSESSION with Jews who earn their living in a sordid criminal way. The ones who live off dishonesty in one way or the other. Is he trying to come to terms with his father’s occupation during the war years, of him being a black marketeer? Because if that is the case, could it not have been enough to mention it in ONE book. To have it as a running theme in all his books, well it is starting to sound like a broken record. This is my third Modiano book and I can not say that I am particularly interested in reading any more of them. It is an utter waste of time in my view.
The book starts with a young man, sitting studying a photo of three men and a woman. One of the men happens to be his father. Then suddenly he starts talking of them as live people, people he is observing in the present and you later find out, that he has been sitting at the inn Clos-Foucré in Seine-et-Marne, for three weeks observing them, listening in on their conversations. The three men, all have week-end houses in the village, which is situated by the Fountainebleau forest. The forest which the father of the young man in “Place de l’Etoile” sold to the Germans in July 1944! Not very original in other words!
The main characters in the book are Jean Murraille, who owns a gossip magazine with dubious journalists. He receives death threats every day, but if they have anything to do with the magazine or his shady business dealings, is never explained. He has a wanna be actress daughter who also happens to be a nymphomaniac and her name is Annie. A complete slut by the sound of it and she is engaged to be married to his best friend, malaria sick, ex-Foreign Legion Count Guy Francois Arnand de Marcheret d’Eau. Since this man grew up with his mother in dire poverty, I doubt very much that the title has anything to do with reality. Maud Gallas who is a failed singer, probably with a past as a prostitute, runs the inn and is very chummy with the men and don’t say anything about them man-handling her in public. Finally there is Chalva Deychecaire, or the baron as they call him, the Jew who lets all the others spit on him. He is kissing up to them all and they despise him for it and for what he is. And yet, he stays.
The three men live a frivolous life with lots of promiscuous guests every weekend. One of them being Murraille’s mistress Sylviane Quimphe, who spends all day in riding gear, who shops antiques like there is no tomorrow and who spent her entire youth as a travel-prostitute. Having sex with men on trains heading for different European destinations. When she finally met a goldmine, it only lasted for four months, but he showered her with enough gifts that she never had to worry about money again. What a crowd Serge Alexandre gets introduced to, after the three weeks, when Murraille finally talks to him. We never find out what Serge’s real name is, but he has taken this alias for reasons unknown. He presents himself as an author. Murraille invites him to join them all at villa Mektoub, Marcheret’s villa.
He has come to see what his father is up to, feeling responsible for him and to see if his dad recognises him, but his father does not let on at all, if he does. Serge spends a lot of time with the group and is offered a job on Murraille’s magazine, which he reluctantly agrees to accept. He is supposed to write sleazy articles. He takes his time doing so, but it gives him an opportunity to stay close to the men and observe his father. How can a man not recognise his son? Well, they never knew each other very well. Serge explains to the reader, that he met his father for the first time on his graduation day from Lycee. He was 17 years old and his father showed up from nowhere, to take him to Paris. Once again, Modiano is not very original, since Serge studied in Bordeaux, just like the young man did in “Place de l’Etoile”. Serge grew up with an elderly lady, who had worked in a cloak room before retirement. When he started Lycee, he had sponsors in the rich Pessac family, who highly disliked the fact that his father just came and took him away. And that the father so clearly was Jewish.
Chalva, at that time, was a refugee in France, from Alexandria, who lived on the edge and did everything to avoid the police. What he brought Serge to was utter poverty. They moved around all the time, to shabby rooms where Serge had to sleep on the floor. Their business? Selling collector’s items to crazy collectors. And that at outrageous prices. Serge gets to do his own line of business, which is selling first edition books, but since they do not come cheap, he buys books and forge signatures. He sells books expensively pretending that the authors has signed them for famous people, writing long letters sometimes on the first page or sincere dedications etc.
One of his father’s favourite things to do at the end of the day, is to drive to an abandoned railway line and study everything on it, take notes and draw pictures of it. He has great plans for it. But like with everything, he never tells Serge anything. And then one day, he goes bananas. He rips up his notebook and then in the metro station, as the train is pulling in, he pushes Serge. Fellow travelers save Serge’s life, but they are both brought to the police station. Serge swears he did not see who pushed him, his father remains silent, but Serge had felt his father’s signet ring in his shoulder, so he knew. They parted ways that evening, Serge having no idea why his father had tried to kill him. Nor do we ever find out. Serge continues his scam till one day he is caught by a book collector and threatened with a law suit. He works in different schools after this. Then as scout leader. Assistant to a doctor who sells drugs to people who are addicts. Serge had to find new clients for him. Then he was a secretary to a poetess and finally he volunteered to work for the police, shadowing people. In the outer boulevards, which is the book’s name in Swedish. The place where all the garbage from Paris, ends up. One day he decided to find his father and get some answers.
What he finds is a pathetic man who is squatting in the house Le Prieuré. The owners hiding out in Switzerland or Portugal till times get better. In other words, we finally understand that the time and place is Occupation France. He fears that his father is taken advantage of by Marcheret and when he asks Sylviane about Chalva’s role etc., she says that he is Murraille’s decoy man and that he is no more needed, so they are going to get rid of him as soon as possible. Serge becomes her lover or as he calls it, gigolo and he despises his new job at “C’est la Vie”, writing “dirty” articles for alcoholic black mailers, which is what Marcheret and Murraille are as well as black marketeers.
The marriage of Marcheret to Annie is finally taking place. But it takes days to find the bride, who is not really interested in this marriage. She arrives on the day with her lover and after the ceremony she throws her ring in the face of the groom. At the party, Murraille introduces Serge to two of his anti-Semitic journalists. One talks of playing Jewish tennis, which means spotting Jews and getting points like in tennis for it. The other one complains about how the Jews sit safely in Cannes, Nice and Marseilles, like nothing was going on in the world to threaten their existence. The latter, Lestandi, is happy that all of the journalists at the magazine are “clean” and that he is allowed to write whatever he wants to about the Jews. Even if he feels the magazine is too lighthearted, thanks to Murraille. Serge asks if they should not go for a walk and out in the forest he kills Lestandi.
When he gets back, the other journalist Gerbère is off to play some Jew tennis and claims “Now is the time of the murderers. I welcome it.” The right thing to say to Serge, right? Serge tells his father to come with him, that it is high time to leave, and they steal Marcheret’s car. Too late, they discover that they have forgot their ID-papers. Chalva has had a plan for a while, to have this man Titiko help him across to Belgium with $1500, a pink diamond and a bunch of gold bars in the shape of credit cards. Serge feels worried that Titiko might not be trustworthy but at least it seems like he is. They are to meet at a hotel for further instructions or help. Instead four men arrive, beat them up and arrest them. He has no idea where they will be taken, villa Triste (name of another novel), Drancy…? But his fate is with his dad.
After reading the book, you have found out nothing. What did the father do before he fetched Serge? Why did he not take care of Serge? Where was his mother? Why did he try to kill Serge? What happened to them after the arrest? Did Chalva die? Who turned them in? Marcheret? Murraille? After the war, Serge returns to the inn in the village, now run by Grève, the ex-waiter. He doesn’t find out what happened to anyone of the other people, except Murraille who had been put in front of a firing squad. French one or German one? For marketeering? Collaboration?
The more I read of Modiano, the more convinced I am of the anti-Semitical attitude of the Novel prize committee who chose him for the 2014 prize. It was an act of anti-Semitism! Because Modiano makes people hate the Jews with his books. He reinforces the old, very old stereotypes of them. And to put him and his books in the limelight at this time, when anti-Semitism is at a great height in Europe, was very wrong. Now is the time to try to kill those stereotypes, not fuel them. But Sweden is so pro-Palestine so it is in the interest of the Swedish establishment to make the Jews look really bad. And Modiano really manages to do that!