Villa Triste – Nostalgia Beautiful and Cruel

Patrick Modiano has built, in Villa Triste, a short, sharp, engrossing story about two of the bitterest emotions: lost love and the nostalgia it brings. Using an impressionist’s skill with images, he paints luscious tableaux of a time in his narrator’s younger days, where light, color and shadow create a feeling as important as the figures they touch. His narrator’s memory has grown blurry with the passage of time and forgiving in nostalgia’s rose-colored lens.

On the surface Villa Triste appears to be a bright, shiny, appealing story about youthful romance told as a remembrance of things long past. A curious young man—something of an odd, neurotic fantasist—has been sent by his family to spend the summer holed up among pensioners and pot-scrubbers in a hotel situated in a popular lakeside resort town. He alludes to mental health issues as the reason, though Modiano hints that it could also be the threat of having to enlist in an unfolding war in Algeria that has brought him within sight of peaceable, neutral Switzerland.

The town’s proximity to Switzerland is of great importance to the narrator, who sees it as a place of escape, though we are never quite sure what he thinks he will need to escape. Perhaps his own lies, like when he tells his new love and all the chic people he meets that he’s a count thrust out of his home, without a nation and alone.

Villa TriesteThe indolent youth spends his time doing little but observing the hotel’s other oddities until one day he happens to meet a beautiful would-be starlet, Yvonne, and her mysterious friend Dr. Meinthe. Suddenly he is pulled in among them, basking in the glow of their fame, their fortune, and the orgiastic revelry of the rich and unencumbered. That’s how it feels, at least.

What begins as a random encounter quickly becomes a relationship. What follows is a whirlwind of elegant parties and drink-fueled escapades around the lakeside, days and nights of wine and roses and the constant stroking of impressionable egos. There is passion in abundance, but behind it lurk the lies on which both his and Yvonne’s lives in town are based, which neither party is willing to admit.

The shadows are always darkest where the sun is brightest. Though the story is bright, the tale takes its name from Meinthe’s mostly empty, dilapidated family home. It is here that the half-forgotten or mostly ignored darker side begins to be revealed. That house and its forgotten state is the first inkling of what is to come, a dilapidation that spreads through the town as time wears away all of the gilding. Think of Fitzerald’s East Egg after forty years have passed and all the glamour has dried up, replaced with some cheap imitation—or not even replaced at all. The hotels and casinos have shuttered, and not simply for the winter.

When the narrator of Villa Triste recalls the past, his summer of love on the banks of a lake nestled between France and Switzerland, it is through thirteen years worth of self-delusion. He returns to the town, a mere shadow of what it once was, only to find his one-time friend Meinthe, also a shadow of his former self. So what are we to think of our narrator? That he has escaped time’s brutal onslaught? That he is just as he was, only with a decade of learning and development bolstering him? Or is he, like Meinthe, doomed to return to where he spent the greatest days of his life, wishing to recapture something beautiful and lost?

Villa Triste
Paul Modiano

About Marti Sichel (71 Articles)
Marti Davidson Sichel is happy to be a part of such an impressive lineup of talented contributors. She has always loved the capital-A Arts. Some of her fondest early memories include standing starry-eyed at stage doors to meet musical cast members who smiled and signed playbills, singing along to Broadway classics and dancing as only a six-year-old can to Cats. She was also a voracious and precocious reader. The bigger the words and more complex the ideas her books contained, the better — even (especially) if a teacher raised an eyebrow at the titles. Marti’s educational and professional experience tends toward the scientific, though science and art are often more connected than they seem. Being able to combine her love of culture and wordsmithing is a true pleasure, and she is grateful to Woman Around Town’s fearless leaders for the opportunity. A 2014 New York Press Club award winner, Marti finds the trek in from Connecticut and the excursions to distant corners of the theater world as exciting as ever. When she’s not working, you can often find Marti in search of great music, smart comedy and interesting recipes.