In the mornings, Papa would wake me up. He would have made breakfast, which was waiting on our little table. He would open the shutters, and I could see him from the back, framed by the window. He looked out over the landscape of roofs, and way in the distance, to the glass done of the Gare de l’Est station. As he knotted his tie, he would say, in a thoughtful or sometimes very resolute tone, “Life, it’s just you and me.”Catherine Certitude by Patrick Modiano
Catherine Certitude looked so beautiful that I picked it off the library shelf for nine-year-old T — & then I read the back and knew that it was coming straight home with us: ballet! Paris! childhood memories! Yes please!
It’s now been passed from T to me, and then from me to B and I think we’ve all fallen under its atmospheric spell. It’s a slim tale told in short sections of prose, beautifully illustrated by Sempé. Like that Christmas stalwart The Snowman, it opens with an adult encountering an object which leads them to reminisce about their childhood. Catherine, a dance teacher in New York, is transported back to her childhood by the sight of a young girl taking off her glasses before dance class.
We’re nobody special; just New Yorkers, like so many others. Only one thing in my life is out of the ordinary: before we came to America, I spent my childhood in Paris, in a neighbourhood off the 10th arrondissement. That was almost thirty years ago.
And then we’re back in Paris, where the young Catherine is living with her father above the ‘kind of shop’ with the steel shutter ‘that Papa rolled down every evening at seven’. Her mother, an American dancer, has moved back to America and Catherine and her father are to join her when Papa has,
‘wrapped up his “business affairs.” Or at least that’s the explanation he gave me. Later on, I understood that there were other reasons for Mama’s departure.’
We meet Papa’s wonderfully controlling business partner, Mister Casterade, who is always keen to read one of his poems aloud, and wonder, with Catherine, exactly what Papa & Mister Casterade actually do. Why do the deliveries of boxes often come at night? And why is Papa so indebted to Mister Casterade anyway? When Catherine starts dance lessons, she & Papa have the opportunity to go to a party at her friend Odile’s house, but will Papa make the connections he feels would help his business so very much?
Not all the mysteries are solved, but that’s part of what I loved about the book because even with the benefit of adult hindsight, not everything about our childhoods ever becomes totally clear. The final paragraph of the book stayed with me for days. I’d love to believe it’s true — and in some way (crying again even as I type this), I think it is:
We always stay the same and the people we have been in the past go on living until the end of time. So there will always be the little girl, Catherine Certitude, who is still walking with her father through the streets of the 10th arrondissement of Paris.
Reading so many short stories this year has made me think about their power as a gateway to a new author, and Catherine Certitude has had the same effect. I hadn’t read anything by Patrick Modiano before, but I’m now eager to read more. Let me know if you have any recommendations about where to start!
Catherine Certitude by Patrick Modiano, first published 1988, translated by David R. Godine. Pictured edition from Andersen Press.