The story begins in New York. Catherine is an elderly woman watching her daughter teach a dance class. She notices a young girl wearing glasses. The young girl carefully places her glasses on the chair to dance. Instantly, Catherine is transported back to her own glasses-wearing childhood.
Without my glasses, the world lost its roughness and became as soft and downy as the big pillow I used to lean my cheek against before going to sleep.
When I wore my glasses I saw the world as it was. I couldn’t dream any more.
I loved how this one paragraph told me that this was going to be a book about perception & memory – my favourite bookish themes.
Catherine Certitude is by the Nobel Prize in Literature 2014 winner, Patrick Modiano.
It was first published in 1988 in France.
This lovely hardback edition, translated by William Rodarmor & illustrated by Jean-Jacques Sempe, was recently published in the UK through Andersen Press.
It’s a curious tale with more adult appeal I feel, than the early reader picture book that it looks like from the outside. The cover declares that it’s a love letter to Paris, but it feels more like a loving homage to a father/daughter relationship. Full of tenderness & nuances, Catherine Certitude highlights all the special little understandings that exist in any strong bond.
Catherine now runs a ballet school in New York, but this is the story of her childhood in Paris:
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.
One of the few things I knew about Modiano from all the publicity last year was that he had had a difficult childhood and that his stories were concerned with memory, history, identity and the complexities of choice.
I was therefore, even more curious about Catherine’s story – was this a wish fulfillment tale about his own childhood or perhaps a story about his relationship with his two daughters?
Modiano’s work is haunted by what he says was a cold upbringing, creating the impression of a long letter to his parents. (The Local)
Catherine Certitude leaves us with many unsolved mysteries. Why did the mother leave them in Paris? What were Mr Certitude’s shady dealings? Why did he emigrate to France?
There are all sorts of signposts from Modiano’s own life – the cold, unavailable mother and a father engaged in dodgy collaborations. Yet, it is clear that this father and daughter are very close. Tolerant and supportive of each other’s dreams and foibles:
We always stay the same and the people we have been in the past go on living until the end of time.
Catherine Certitude is Modiano’s only children’s book, but I for one, will be reading more of his adult work to explore his “art of memory” (Nobel Prize committee).