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4.1.16

À mon chevet: 'La Place de l'étoile'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
'Now to work, my boy. You leave immediately for the Haute-Savoie. I have just received an order from Rio de Janeiro: "Young French mountain girl. Brunette. Husky." From there, you will move on to Normandy. This time the order is from Beirut: "Elegant French girl whose ancestors fought in the crusades. Good provincial landed gentry." The client is clearly a lecher after our own hearts! An emir who wants to avenge himself for Charles Martel...'

'Or the sack of Constantinople by the crusaders...'

'If you prefer. In short, I have found what he requires. In the Calvados region... A young woman... descended from a venerable aristocratic family! Seventeenth-century château! Cross and Lance heads with fleurs-de-lis on a field Azure. Hunting parties! The ball is in your court, Schlemilovitch. There is not a moment to lose. We have our work cut out for us! The abductions must involve no bloodshed. Come, have one last drink at my place, then I will accompany you to the station.'

Lévy-Vendôme's apartment is furnished in the Napoléon III style. The vicomte ushers me into his library.

'Have you ever seen such exquisite bindings?' he says, 'I am a bibliophile, it is my secret vice. See, if I take down a volume at random: a treatise on aphrodisiacs by René Descartes. Apocrypha, nothing but apocrypha... I have single-handedly reinvented the whole history of French literature. Here we have the love letters of Pascal to Mlle de La Vallière. A bawdy saga by Bossuet. An erotic tale by Mme de La Fayette. Not content with debauching the women of this country, I wanted to prostitute French literature in its entirety. To transform the heroines of Racine and Marivaux into whores. Junia willingly copulating with Nero as a horrified Britannicus looks on. Andromache throwing herself into the arms of Pyrrhus at their first meeting. Marivaux's countesses donning their maids' uniforms and "borrowing" their lovers for the night. As you can see, Schlemilovitch, being involved in the white slave trade does not preclude being a man of culture. I have spent forty years writing apocrypha, devoting myself to dishonoring the most illustrious writers of France. Take a leaf out of my book, Schlemilovitch! Vengeance, Schlemilovitch, vengeance!'

-- Patrick Modiano, La Place de l'étoile (trans. Caroline Hillier), pp. 49-51
French writer Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014, but this is the first time I have read any of his books. This was Modiano's first book, presented under the mentorship of Raymond Queneau, and it reportedly contains some biographical details from the life of Modiano's father. It is part of a new edition in English of Modiano's Occupation Trilogy, and its outrageous protagonist, Raphaël Schlemilovitch, has one of those truly memorable narrative voices, mingling fantasy and outright lies with semi-truths in a mix that is virtuosic and possibly off-putting. In this passage Schlemilovitch takes up the offer of a shady viscount to help him procure girls from around France to be abducted and sent off to brothels in other countries.

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