Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano, trans. by Mark Polizzotti

Despite many attempts by my Grandmother, my school, my various universities, to encourage me to read French Literature, my ability to read in the original is pitiful and my knowledge of French Literature consequently unimpressive. Though I have my favourites, Marguerite Duras, Marie Darrieussecq, George Perec, Flaubert and Montaigne, and though I have read Proust, Maupassant and Baudelaire, I am embarrassed by how unfamiliar I am with French Literature and how reliant I am upon publishers to find and translate great works in French (I long for them to do this more). It was no surprise then that I hadn’t read this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick Modiano. What did surprise me was how familiar the work felt.

Included in Suspended Sentences are three novellas written over a five-year period and not originally intended to be published together, but all of which obsess over a Paris seen through the misted glass of memory and loss. It seemed more than fitting for the last novella of the collection to be called Flowers of Ruin, so reminiscent of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal which for me is a collection remembered from adolescence as a flaneur’s musings on the darker side of city life. Though Modiano’s narrators aren’t wandering the streets of a relatively modern Paris (1990s) with tortoises in lieu of dogs, they do meander across the city and through memory with a strange mixture of measure and suggestion that adds to the mystery at the heart of all three novellas. Each narrator is seeking answers to people who feel central to their earlier lives, be it childhood, adolescence or early adulthood, and each of these people remain unanswerable, characters lost to history. In Flowers of Ruin one of these characters disappears before his very eyes:

“At that moment a phenomenon occurred for which I’m still trying to find an explanation: had the street lamp at the top of the steps suddenly gone out? Little by little, that man melted into the wall. Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him, the way water dilutes a fresco that hasn’t had time to dry properly. As hard as I pressed my forehead against the glass and peered at the dark gray wall, no trace of him remained. He had vanished in that sudden way that I’d later notice in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself these people had really existed.” (p211)

Though each novella tells a different story, they feel deeply connected – the bumper cars of one story reappearing in another – and at the heart is this puzzle over identity; the people and events that make up our past become lost in ways that question our own solidity.

“I was going to disappear in this garden, amid the Easter Monday crowds. I was losing my memory and couldn’t understand French anymore, as the words of the women next to me had now become no more than onomatopoeias in my ear. The efforts I’d made for thirty years to have a trade, give my life some coherence, try to speak and write a language as best I could so as to be certain of my nationality – all that tension suddenly released. It was over. I was nothing now. Soon I would slip out of this park toward a metro stop, then a train station and a port. When the gates closed, all that would remain of me would be the raincoat I’d been wearing, rolling into a ball on a bench.” (Afterimage, p57)

You can hear Modiano’s own struggles written into the narratives of these novellas and yet, despite the fraught difficulty of autobiographical fiction, even the fruitless investigations of his narrators, the writing itself is quiet and elegant, creating careful snap shots that are perfectly clear until they are forced to cohere when the intrusion of light over-exposes them into the beautiful fog of time passed that remains my lasting impression of the book as a whole. In the first novella, the narrator recalls a remark made by his photographer friend, of whom he is now trying to write, saying that you need to “approach things gently and quietly or they pull away” (p47).  What he wants is to “blend into the surroundings and become invisible, the better to work and capture – as he said – natural light” (p55). This is the impossible search Modiano and his characters have entered into, making Suspended Sentences an intriguing and elusive book whose mastery is in the simple reflection of the maze of memory.

Next week I’m reading Tinkers by Paul Harding, followed by The Notebook by Agota Kristof.