Academic journal article Romance Notes

Confusion in the Service of Clarity: The Circus in Patrick Modiano's Un Cirque Passe

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Confusion in the Service of Clarity: The Circus in Patrick Modiano's Un Cirque Passe

Article excerpt

COMMENTING on Patrick Modiano's 1992 Un cirque passe, Alan Morris includes the novel's title among the mysteries and unanswered questions generated by both the style and the plot of this roman policier that is not really one. As he states, "[T]he title promises us a circus, of which no mention is made for ages" (188). The unfulfilled, or at least deferred realization of our expectation of a circus is only one example of how this text simultaneously posits a relationship to the circus, and establishes a distance from it. We find this ambiguity already present in the very wording of the title. The circus of Un cirque passe is in motion and in transit; it is at once present and absent; it is passing by, parading in front of us, and it would be impossible to say whether it is arriving or leaving. In the title, the circus is, but it is not here, or at least not entirely.

Within the text, the word cirque first appears as part of an expression uttered by a female friend of the narrator's surrogate father Grabley. Sylvette, who has just performed a strip-tease in a Pigalle nightclub, and who is feeling ashamed and humiliated by what she has been forced to do to make a living, directs her anger toward Grabley who invited the narrator Jean and this latter's new girlfriend Gisele to see the show: "Quand meme," the narrator's report of her speech begins, "elle n'etait pas encore tout a fait devenue une bete de cirque ou un animal que l'on va voir au zoo le dimanche" (114). Sylvette's situation and her statement relate circus with performance, spectacle, and objectification, three phenomena from which, as her statement indicates, she, in her embarrassment, would want to dissociate herself. The scene ends with Sylvette walking on to yet another performance, Grabley expressing surprise and dismay at her moodiness, and the two young people barely suppressing a fit of laughter. It appears that Sylvette, however much she might wish otherwise, is part of the circus.

The most important allusion to the circus comes in the form of the answer to a question that Jean finally poses to Gisele, who is married: who is her husband?

Oh, un drole de type ... Il s'occupe d'un cirque ... Je me demandais si elle plaisantait ou si c'etait la verite. Elle avait l'air de guetter ma reaction.--Un cirque?--Oui, un cirque ... Il etait parti en tournee avec ce cirque mais elle n'avait pas voulu le suivre. (124)

Through this explanation, Gisele and Jean are at the same time related to, and disengaged from the circus. Gisele's connection arises from the fact that she is married to the owner or manager of one. However, other information that we also learn contributes to attenuating her association with the circus: her casual entrance into marriage with her husband together with her current three-month long estrangement from him, his being on tour with the circus at the time of the story, and, finally, her having refused to accompany him. As for Jean, his relationship to the circus is even more indirect, since it is established through his association with Gisele whose already diminished connection also weakens his.

Dina Scherzer, in her examination of Maurice Roche's 1972 novel Circus, identifies properties of the circus which inform Roche's text, and which are here relevant to a discussion of Modiano's work:

As in a circus where one can observe a heterogeneous spectacle composed of wild animals and their tamers, tightrope walkers, horse-back riders, trapeze artists, and clowns; all appearing successively on stage with fast tempo, and exhibiting stunt, virtuosity, and prowess, Circus offers a succession of pages which contain various linguistic juxtapositions and various types of typographical and spatial organization. The whole book is a continuous display of such virtuosity.... (37)

Scherzer compares the structure of Roche's text Circus and that of a real circus, finding both to consist of the juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements presented in succession. …

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