From a Nobel winner

by | Feb 6, 2015 | Book Reviews

Suspended Sentences
Patrick Modiano
Translated by Mark Polizzotti
Yale University Press, 2014
ISBN 978-0-300-19805-8, 215 pp.(paper)

Patrick Modiano, French writer of Flemish/ Italian/Jewish ancestry and winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature is almost unheard of in the United States. His novel, Missing Persons, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1978, sold fewer than 2,500 copies in this country. Considered by critics to be a modern Marcel Proust, and considering his reputation for many fictional works set in Paris during WWII , the publication of Suspended Sentences by the Yale University Press is of more than routine significance. This slim volume, consisting of three novellas, must serve as your reviewer’s introduction to this moody, terse artist and likely to our readers as well.

Modiano was born in 1945 and his early works were an attempt to reconnect with the past; in his own words “a search for memories.” His prodigious output, about 30 books to date plus screenplays, while not autobiographical, sometimes appears to be a search for an autobiography. Characters appear in one novella in a minor role only to reappear in another in a more prominent role. Thus, the three novellas, although published individually over a period of five years, have considerable coherence, whether intended or not. Modiano, in another context states, “I have always felt like I’ve been writing the same book for 45 years.” His comment for a reissue of a collection of his novels suggests that these books “form a single work…I thought I’d written them discontinuously, in successive bouts of forgetfulness, but often the same faces, the same names, the same places, the same sentences recur from one to the other.”

In the first novella, Afterimage, an aspiring author and narrator, perhaps not Modiano but of the same age, becomes fascinated if not obsessed with Jansen, an older freelance photographer. Jansen befriends the youth (this is not a sexual friendship) but is sparing (terse again) in what he reveals of himself, leaving the young writer to piece together what he can of Jansen’s life from his photos, his acquaintances and his own imagination. The youth undertakes the mind-numbing task of organizing and indexing Jansen’s totally chaotic collection of photographs. He attempts to meet with a young woman with whom Jansen may have had an affair, mainly to learn more about him. To no avail, Jansen gives signs that he is about to depart, and finally just disappears, never to be heard from again.

The title novella, Suspended Sentences, is perhaps the more Proust-like. The narrator recalls a childhood year in which he, of elementary school age, and his younger brother are cared for by unmarried sisters in a bucolic French village. Their parents are perennially away, the mother an actress performing in parts unknown and their father even more difficult to pin down. Here reference may be made to the author’s parents, his mother being on the road a lot and his father somewhat on the run. Doted upon by the sisters and, to the young boys, their mysterious and fascinating friends, life passes in a charming and privileged manner. In this novella the “remembrance of things past” is that magical year. In later years there are occasional reunions with one or more of the characters remembered from childhood, none of which have any permanence, nor is there any real closure to the relationships.

Finally, Flowers of Ruin, published originally in 1991 when the author was 46 years old, is a third existential mystery, with subtle connections to the prior works—all three of which were published within about five years. Although not completely autobiographical, Flowers of Ruin may represent Modiano as a young adult. He has left school and taken to making careful notations of his observation of a particular character, Pacheco, and very Proustian trivia of persons, places and things. Thus, the writer emerges, in his own words, “without fully realizing it, I began writing my first book.”

This slim volume offers only the most oblique references to the Nazi occupation of Paris during WWII , for studies of which Modiano is most famous. However, the three works selected are a fitting introduction to a Nobel Prize-winning author virtually unknown in the USA.

—Hal Sacks has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.