Illustration by Johan Barthold Jongkind on Wikimedia Commons

An Afternoon at Ferme d’Auteuil

Patrick Modiano—

In the street, he unfolded the sheet she’d handed him. Written on it was: Kim, 288-15-28.

     Strange first name. But it had something pert and cheerful about it, like the little crystalline signal the con­ductor of the old platform buses used to sound, giving the chain a sharp jerk to announce the departure. More­over, the sun and freshness of the air were as springlike as at the start of the afternoon. Only one detail both­ered him: the apartment’s new phone number was in­deed seven digits, but it still had the same four last num­bers as the old one: AUTEUIL 15-28. Still, he was certain he wouldn’t hear those voices from the afterworld if he dialed 288-15-28. It had only taken a lovely spring day.

     Approaching the end of Rue Michel-Ange, he crossed paths with a dark-haired man, with a tanned face, short hair, and athletic bearing, who was carrying a leather bag with a slight rocking motion. Their eyes met, and he was tempted to speak to him. It might have been Dr. Rouveix. He turned around and watched him walk with a regular gait. He would have liked to follow him to ver­ify whether he was in fact heading toward the apart­ment building, but he considered that pointless and in­discreet. The next time he called 288-15-28, he’d give Kim a physical description of the man and ask if it was indeed Dr. Rouveix.

     He felt light as he walked that afternoon, wander­ing aimlessly in the streets of Auteuil. He thought about that apartment, so different by day and by night, as if belonging to two parallel worlds. But why should that bother him? For years he’d been used to living in the nar­row margin between reality and dream, letting them il­luminate each other, sometimes blend together, while he continued on his way with a decided step, not devi­ating by a centimeter, which he knew would have upset a precarious balance. On more than one occasion, he’d been called a sleepwalker, and to a certain degree the word had seemed a compliment. Once upon a time, peo­ple used to consult sleepwalkers for their gift of second sight. He felt no different from them. What mattered was not to slip off the ridgeline and to know just how far one can dream one’s life.

     He would gladly have walked to the Ferme d’Au­teuil to see whether it matched his recollections. The place had surely changed in fifteen years, lost its rustic appearance. As he drew closer to the area around the racetracks, he remembered coming there once, to that Ferme d’Auteuil, with Rose-Marie Krawell and a rather tall dark-haired man whom he wouldn’t have been able to recognize even if someone had shown him a photo of the fellow at the time. The only detail he could have fur­nished about that faceless man was the watch he wore on his wrist, a huge watch whose multiple faces, of dif­ferent sizes, marked the days, months, and years, and even the different phases of the moon. The man had ex­plained all this to him while handing him the watch and letting him wear it for a moment. And he had specified that this was an “American army watch,” three words whose sound had been more important to him than the exact meaning, since they still resounded in his memory with a muffled echo.

     At the Ferme d’Auteuil that afternoon, Rose-Marie Krawell had sat facing him. He wondered whether he’d be able to recognize her after fifteen years. A blonde with large light-colored eyes. Cropped hair. Average height. Wearing bracelets with large links. Those were the vague terms he would have used to describe her. On top of which, he retained a few impressions. Her deep voice. Her slightly brusque way of speaking. Her ciga­rette lighter, which she took from her handbag and gave him to play with. The lighter had her scent.

     Leaving the Ferme d’Auteuil, the three of them, Rose-Marie Krawell, the dark-haired man, and he, had gotten into a black car. Rose-Marie Krawell was at the wheel, the man next to her, and he in the back seat. And they had ended up in an apartment near the Ferme d’Au­teuil, as the drive seemed short. But when it comes to childhood memories, you have to take anything about distance or the time spent getting from one place to another with a grain of salt, as well as about the order of events you believe occurred in the same afternoon, when in fact they occurred weeks or years apart.

     In one bedroom of the apartment, Rose-Marie Krawell was sitting on the corner of a desk and talking on the telephone. She had taken back her lighter, which she had lent him to play with, and with that scented lighter she lit a cigarette. The man with the “American army watch” sat near him on a couch and showed how you get the watch to make a little alarm sound, at the time when you want to wake up. You only had to stop the blue needle on the number of the hour in question and push a button at the bottom of the dial. But apart from those specific movements, he remembered no de­tails from that day, as if he were studying under a loupe the only remaining scrap of a torn photograph.

     He had reached the boulevard, not far from the race­tracks. On the spur of the moment, he decided not to cross the street to go to the Ferme d’Auteuil. He no lon­ger felt like making such a pilgrimage alone. He remem­bered that on the face of the “American army watch,” you could make the hands turn backward simply by pressing. If he crossed the threshold of the Ferme d’Au­teuil today and sat at one of the tables, in the garden, he would go back through time. He would find himself at the same table with Rose-Marie Krawell and the man with the “American army watch.” He’d be his current age, but they would be exactly the same as fifteen years ago. They wouldn’t have aged a day. And he could finally ask them some precise questions. Would they be able to answer? Would they want to?

From Scene of the Crime: A Novel, by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in Boulogne-Billancourt, France, in 1945, and published his first novel, La Place de l’Etoile, in 1968. His previous books include Invisible Ink, Sleep of Memory, and Family Record. He lives in Paris. Mark Polizzotti has translated more than fifty books from French. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Recent Posts

All Blogs