By Patrick Modiano, from Livret de famille, an untranslated novel that was published in 1977 by Éditions Gallimard. Modiano’s most recent books in translation, Such Fine Boys and Sundays in August, were published this month by Yale University Press. Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti.
It was in the Luxembourg Gardens, one winter morning ten years ago, that I learned Fats had died. I had pulled up a metal chair next to the pond and unfolded the newspaper. A picture of Fats — mustache, dark glasses, white silk scarf, and the felt hat he often wore to go out — accompanied the article. He had keeled over in a restaurant on the Viale Trastevere, probably while eating a dish of that green lasagna he loved so well.
I was eighteen, working in a bookstore in Rome, when I was introduced to Fats by a French girl a bit older than I who performed at the Open Gate, a cabaret on the Via San Niccoló da Tolentino. She was known as Claude Chevreuse, at least professionally. At around midnight she would appear onstage wearing a mink coat and evening gown, and begin a very languid striptease while the piano man played the theme from They Shall Have Music. Two white toy poodles capered around her, turning somersaults in the air, and snatched her stockings, bra, garters, and panties between their teeth as she peeled them off. For some time, Fats had been a regular presence in the audience, always on his own, and when Claude returned to her dressing room, she would find a rose from this nightly spectator.
Fats invited us to his table one night after the show. When Claude introduced us, he burst into a guffaw that jiggled his shoulders and flabby cheeks. I happened to have the same name as a brand of cards that everyone in Italy used for playing poker. Fats found this riotously funny, and from then on his nickname for me was Poker.
That evening, after we’d had a last drink at a sidewalk café on the Via Veneto, Claude whispered in my ear that she had to go home with Fats. They climbed into a cab in front of the Excelsior. Fats lowered the window, waved his stubby fingers, and said, “Arrivederla, Poker.”
From then on, I would run into Fats at the Open Gate whenever I went to pick up Claude. He waited for her in her dressing room. She treated him cruelly and made cutting remarks about his weight, but Fats didn’t respond, or just nodded. One evening, she deserted us both on the Via Veneto, saying she had a date with a “very attractive, very slim” boy, stressing the word “slim” to needle Fats. We watched her leave, then went to get pastries. I tried to distract Fats, who seemed utterly dejected. I suppose that’s why he came to like me, and why we continued to get together. He would make appointments with me for four o’clock sharp at a small bar on the Via delle Botteghe Oscure, and there he had what he called his snack: about a dozen smoked-salmon sandwiches. Or else, in the evening, he took me to a restaurant near the Quirinale, where the coat-check lady greeted him as “Your Highness.”
Fats, head bowed, absorbed huge plates of green lasagna; then he heaved a sigh as he fell back in his chair, and immediately sank into a vacant stupor. At around one in the morning, I tapped him on the shoulder and we went home.
I never dared bring up his past, or the details that had helped forge his legend: breaking the bank in Deauville and Monte Carlo, his collections of toys, stamps, and old telephones, or his taste for phosphorescent ties, on which a naked woman appeared if you shook the fabric. Still, one evening at the restaurant, as he was wolfing down his lasagna, I said it was a shame to end up this way, after so many good fairies had watched over his crib.
He looked up and gazed at me through his opaque lenses. He told me he remembered the exact moment when he had decided to give up and let himself gain weight, feeling that “nothing mattered a damn” and that he’d wind up the same as Louis XVI, Nicholas Romanov, and Maximilian, the ill-fated emperor of Mexico. It was one night in 1942, in Egypt. Rommel’s armies were closing in from Cairo and a blackout enveloped the city. Fats sneaked into the Hotel Semiramis, incognito, and groped his way toward the bar. Not a glimmer of light. He stumbled against an armchair and fell on his back. And there, alone on the floor, in the dark, he was seized by wild, nervous laughter. He couldn’t stop laughing. That instant marked the beginning of his decline.
It was the only time he opened up to me. Now and then, he might speak Claude Chevreuse’s name. But that was all.
He invited us to his place for New Year’s Eve. He lived in a tiny apartment in a modern building in the Parioli neighborhood. He opened the door. He was wearing a frayed blue velvet dressing gown, with his first initial and the crown of his defunct kingdom embroidered on the pocket. He looked worried when he realized Claude wasn’t with me. I told him that the show at the Open Gate would run longer than usual and Claude would be joining us very late.
In the small space with bare walls that served as his living room, Fats had set up a buffet: pastries, smoked-salmon sandwiches, and fruit. I noticed an old film projector on a barstool.
He was glancing at his watch and perspiring.
“Do you think she’ll come, Poker?”
“Yes, yes, of course. Not to worry.”
“It’s midnight, Poker. Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year to you.”
“Do you really think she’ll come?”
He gobbled down sandwich after sandwich to allay his anxiety. Then the pastries. Then the fruit. He collapsed onto a chair, took off his dark glasses, put on a pair with lightly tinted lenses and gold frames. He stared at me through dull eyes.
“Poker, you’re a nice boy. I feel like adopting you. What do you say?”
It seemed to me his eyes were misting up.
“I’m so lonely, Poker. . . . But before adopting you, maybe I can bestow a title. How’d you like to be a bey? That all right?”
He bowed his head and we kept silent. I should have said thank you.
“Would you like me to read your cards, Poker?”
He took a deck of cards from the pocket of his gown and shuffled them. He was just starting to lay them out on the floor when we heard the doorbell buzz three times. It was Claude Chevreuse.
“Happy New Year! Buon anno! Auguri!” she cried, pacing back and forth across the living room in a state of excitement.
She was wearing her fake-fur coat from the show. She hadn’t had time to remove her makeup and was in a very merry mood. She’d been drinking champagne. She kissed Fats on the forehead and both cheeks, leaving lipstick traces.
“What say we all go out? We’ll dance the night away!” she said. “I want to go to the Piccolo Siam.”
“First I’d like to show you a film,” Fats announced in a sober voice.
“No, no, let’s go out now! Let’s go right now! I want to go to the Piccolo Siam!”
She tried to push Fats toward the door, but he held her back and made her sit in one of the chairs.
“I’d like to show you a film,” he repeated.
“A film?” said Claude. “A film? He’s out of his mind!”
He turned the lights off and started up the projector. Claude shrieked with laughter. She turned toward me and undid her fake fur. She had nothing on but panties.
On the wall opposite us, the images were fuzzy at first, then came into focus. It was an old newsreel from at least thirty years before. A very handsome, very slim, very earnest young man was standing on the prow of a warship that was slowly entering the port of Alexandria. A huge crowd had swarmed into the harbor and we could see thousands upon thousands of waving arms. The ship berthed and the young man waved his arm back at the crowd. They broke through the police barriers and invaded the docks, and all those ecstatic faces were turned toward the young man on the ship. He must have been no more than sixteen, his father had just passed away, and as of the previous day he was king of Egypt. He seemed moved and intimidated by the fervor that rose toward him, the rapturous crowd, the city festooned. Everything was about to begin. The future shone bright. That young man, in all his promise, was Fats.
Claude yawned — champagne always made her sleepy. I turned toward Fats, who was sitting to the right of the projector that was sputtering like a machine gun. With his glasses, his puffy face, and his mustache, he looked fatter and more apathetic than ever.