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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

After the Circus

Patrick Modiano

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To purchase After the Circus

Title: After the Circus
Author: Patrick Modiano
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 197 pages
Original in: French
Availability: After the Circus - US
After the Circus - UK
After the Circus - Canada
Un cirque passe - Canada
After the Circus - India
Un cirque passe - France
Un circo pasa - España
  • French title: Un cirque passe
  • Translated by Mark Polizzotti

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Our Assessment:

A : simple, chilling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/12/2015 Kaiama L. Glover

  From the Reviews:
  • "In following his mysterious new love through the streets of mid-60s Paris and its environs, he comes to know the perils inherent in any attempt "to gather up the scattered pieces of a life," especially a life lived in the shadows." - Kaiama L. Glover, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       After the Circus seems like a very simple story. The Modiano-like narrator relates events from when he was eighteen; in contrast to many of his works, in which he often (re)considers and comments on events and his actions of the past from a later or present-day perspective he barely intrudes on the timeline here, making for even greater immediacy to the story than usual. He does describe revisiting one of the locales from his story at one point, ten years later -- around 1973 --, a café; once outside: "I stupidly broke down in sobs", a rare emotional outburst from Modiano's otherwise so passive and passionless alter-ego-protagonists, prefiguring just how devastating the blow to come to the eighteen-year-old in the story proper is (a sense further reinforced by the fact that the story is only finally written by Modiano when he has distanced himself from events by another two decades, After the Circus only coming out in 1992).
       The opening of the novel already suggests vague menace and unease, the young narrator being questioned by the police. He doesn't know why, and when he asks at the end of the interrogation is told simply that: "Your name was in someone's address book" -- without being told whose. The names he is questioned about are ones he doesn't recognize, so he is left with no idea what they think he might be mixed up in.
       The narrator is a young man, of barely-formed personal identity. He's escaped from six hellish years at boarding school, with hardly any family support system; his father is in Switzerland -- occasionally in contact if often barely understood over the telephone line -- and the young man shares an apartment (that soon has to be vacated) with a man named Grabley. Grabley calls him 'Obligado' -- a nickname -- and it is only very late in the novel that we learn his actual name, Jean; "I was struck that she'd call me by my name", he says when it is finally revealed, a so-personal marker that only in an extreme situation ("Please, I'm begging you", she pleads) does it come up.
       After he is interrogated by the police a girl of about twenty-two is called in. Jean waits in a nearby café, and when she finally comes out catches her attention, hoping that she might perhaps know what it was all about. She claims she was there for a different matter -- "just to give some evidence" -- so he learns nothing, but she asks him for a favor, to hold onto her suitcase.
       Gisèle -- that's her name -- comes with more baggage: she's married, she has a dog. But she and Jean fall into a sort of lockstep, and he even convinces her to join him when he sets out for Rome, where someone has arranged a job for him. Their relationship is intimate, but Modiano's presentation of this is about as low-key as one could possibly imagine -- and at various points they claim to be brother and sister (and their relationship does feel sibling-like, more than romantic (or, certainly, sexual)).
       Gisèle introduces Jean to some people she has a connection with, notably a man named Ansart. Ansart asks them to do him a small favor, offering them some money for what is little more than an errand and doesn't seem to be in any way dangerous. And yet both Jean and Gisèle sense -- correctly -- that they are being drawn into something very ugly. They repeatedly consider backing out, too, yet also sense that they are already too entangled -- even as it seems that nothing really compels them to go along with this.
       The sense of menace is masterfully managed by Modiano in this expertly-paced novel. The task seems almost trivial, almost everyday -- and yet it's clear that it is an awful, awful thing that will result. Modiano never spells anything out, and everything seems harmless enough. Of course, it isn't.
       The love story, too, is beautifully done. Gisèle remains a woman of some mystery, and Jean is warned away from her, but as they tentatively feel each other out the potential of a future together, a new beginning, in Rome, comes to seem increasingly more plausible. There are hurdles -- her husband, or the fact that the underage Jean needs to forge his father's signature on a document, allowing him to leave the country, something he repeatedly fails to get around to doing, preventing any immediate departure -- but Modiano delicately navigates them slowly forward, and beyond some of what might stand in their way. It's Modiano's approach also that allows for the knock-out ending, which in other hands might seem simply too much.
       It's often said and written that Modiano's œuvre is all of a piece, overlapping -- or even interlocked -- parts of an (autobiographical) whole. Readers familiar with almost any of his work will recognize 'Jean' and his circumstances, much of which has been touched upon elsewhere too. Yet After the Circus strikes a fine balance between being rooted in this shared (over so many other books) past and standing on its own. Familiarity with, say, the father-figure is helpful, and enriches the understanding of the text, but it seems that After the Circus can stand on its own better than many of the other works -- perhaps also because the pivotal event is so well demarcated (and not, for example, as fuzzily rooted in the Occupation as similar central events are in some of Modiano's other novels).
       After the Circus is, ultimately, a bona fide -- and first rate -- thriller. Completely low-key and understated, and practically uneventful. And yet so effectively creepy, perfectly devastating -- and heartbreaking.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 December 2015

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After the Circus: Reviews: Patrick Modiano: Other books by Patrick Modiano under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Patrick Modiano was born in 1945. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014.

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