Review: Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

Suspended Sentences

Suspended Sentences (Yale University Press) is a collection of Patrick Modiano's three novellas; translated by Mark Polizzotti, who accepts the difficulty of translating the titles from French to English: "direct translation worked perfectly for Flowers of Ruin" but "not the case with Remise de peine - literally, a stay of sentence, but also a deferral of pain" and Chien de preintemps for which he "decided to forgo the original altogether". Modiano's writing has been described, to the point of being banal, as an "art of memory". It seems, however, that there is no better way of describing it.

Afterimage is set in Paris where the protagonist meets a photographer, Francis Jansen, while being seated in a cafe with his girlfriend. Jansen takes a photograph of the two and draws them into his world. He starts learning about Jansen through his albums, his friends who he meets sparsely, lady Nicole who is desirous of spending time with Jansen, and through his own participation in the city's life. Characters appear at moments which need them, but then leave no trace of their existence or departure when not needed. And they have have no assigned purpose or intentions to linger around like long evening shadows which take forever to depart after having announced one with the settling sun. The protagonist's memory at times merges with his present; making the past that is behind his years one with the many futures that exist 'unexperienced' in front of him. There is no hurried presence of excitable emotions; nor characters which would do something charged and ruin the slow, uneventful, peaceful flow of the narrative. The subtle misdirections of philosophical thought often pervade - when Jansen wonders if one could create silence with words like with photographs; distances to be covered in time; the dust of time in rooms deserted; the narrator becoming Francis Jansen in a dream; the shadow of an unknown namesake merging with the self.

Suspended Sentences is a reminisce of childhood, the innocent assumptions one makes and unmottled conclusions one hence reaches. Patoche, a blissful idiot of ten years, through whom the author tells us of his childhood, often mixed with locations of Paris and its suburbs, and sometimes coloured in young imagination and giggly laughter, lives with his brother outside of Paris with his mother's friends. His parents are on tour in North Africa with a dramatics company. His experiences of being schooled, getting expelled from one and admitted into another, running off with his brother and a nephew of one of his mother's friends to a chateau, eying the American convertible of a friend of the caretakers, merge later with his life as a first time writer in Paris, struggling to hold his place in crammed walls of penury. Their fascination for circus and smiling men diffuses with surmisings of what the adults share amongst themselves secretly, the hothead which they have heard exists beneath the pleasing face of their recently baptised godmother, and something serious they keep hearing about from grown ups. Patoche and his brother's attempts at invading the chateau in the dead of the night to meet the marquis, whose traces would be hidden by a faithful servant who would on the former's arrival sweep apart the dead leaves but put it all back to cover to suppress hints of presence, would not extend beyond the fifty yards of the night and beyond the tomorrow to which everything was assigned. Some of the friends of the caretakers became known for reasons the idiot couldn't fathom later, and some of their memories refused to extend themselves after very serious something occurred. Thoughtful imbuings work their charm, when people seem to be hanging themselves in summer and drowning in others, his vain searches for a garage to create missing memorials of his father and finally his lost faith in garages as keepers of traces and echos.

Flowers of Ruin is a gentle stirring of a thriller and an autobiographical recollection of time spent in Paris with the central them of a suicide of a young couple, Urbain T and Gisele T, on an early Sunday morning of 23rd April of 1933. As the narrator, which is the author himself, tries to unravel the mystery of the double-suicide, one comes across places plucked out of his memories, people appearing from the shadows of guilt of being a part of the suicide, and the blurring of dishonesty with reality. His girlfriend of that time, Jacqueline; his father's saviour Eddy Pagnon; the possible routes taken by the couple, covering a bar in Montparnasse or Cafe de la Marine or Cabaret des Isles or dance hall in Le Perreux or the restaurant-nightclub on Quai de l'Artois; Claude Bernard who bought books from him; and Pacheco - who is the most layered character but with peppered falsities about his truth; all, and all of the preceding, mould together to leave a hint of excitement and smell of suspicion off every character, while, in Paris, "one could still believe that adventure lay right around every street corner".

In all of Modiano's writings there is a subtle doubt in every character, they appear from mist and disappear in fog, leaving only traces in memory which half-remembers and half-forgets. There are no sudden twists in the happenings, no frightful bursts, neither contrasting bright suffusion of people, nor hindering overt descriptions of appearances. Emotions exist as thin veneer, and even their presence doesn't discolour the looming melancholia of the past, which always merges with the present.

Victoria Best writes that "the contemporary roman noir in France (particularly works of Modiano and Japrisot) rewrites the elements of crime fiction, presenting texts without these triumphant conclusions", the 'conclusions' referring to 'locating the crime' and 'identification of the criminal'1. Stephen Steele analyses Modiano's work and states, "old addresses almost always turn out to be a dead end for Modiano's characters. They find themselves in a space from which former acquaintances and experiences are absent, in a present whose connection to the past is riddled with obscurity"2. While Alan Morris attempts to interpret "Modiano's chien (the dog in Afterimage) to the one that features in Joseph Losey's film on the wartime persecution of Jews in France, Mr. Klein (1976)"3. Modiano's work has been critically studied many a times, especially as postwar literature, but will continue to be analyzed with differing themes.

1 Life Beyond Death: Reading for the Demonic in the texts of Modiano and Japrisot - Oxford Journals (French Studies, Vol. LX, No. 2, 218-231)
2 MODIANOBIS - Oxford Journals (French Studies, 1995)
3 Un Chien (DE) Perdu, Deux De Retrouves: Patrick Modiano's Chien De Printemps and Joseph Losey's Mr. Klein - Oxford Journals (French Studies, 2005)


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