Having finally finished all of my Man Booker International Prize duties and posts, I’m able to turn my attention to a few other things, and for a while now there has been a small pile of books on the shelf, waiting for my attention. Last year, I read a few of Patrick Modiano’s books (released after his Nobel Prize win), and this year has seen the appearance of many more, with several publishers working to get his work into English. With that in mind, this week will be somewhat of a Modiano week on the blog – three books from three different publishers. And it starts today
Suspended Sentences actually came out a while back now, but I was lucky enough to get a review copy recently (and a very good book it is too) from Yale University Press (and their Australian distributor, Footprint Books). It’s a collection of three novellas from the 1990s, all translated by Mark Polizzotti, and while they can be read individually, there is a similarity in tone and content which makes the collection a viable project. Also, with the three together running to just over 200 pages, it makes for a great introduction to Modiano for anyone wanting to dip a toe into his world (I read one a night for three nights, and they certainly increased my knowledge of the writer’s style and themes).
The collection kicks off with Afterimage, the original title of which is Chien de Printemps (‘A Dog of a Spring’). As the pun doesn’t quite work in English, Polizzotti changed it to Afterimage, which fits nicely with the subject matter. The story consists of a writer’s memories of a man he knew back in 1964, photographer Francis Jansen. After a chance meeting in the street, and a few snapshots, the narrator takes it upon himself to organise the mess he finds when he visits Jansen’s temporary home. As he sorts through photos, images of years gone by, he can’t help musing:
At times, it seems, our memories act just like Polaroids.
Afterimage, p.6 (Yale University Press, 2014)
The book consists of short chapters which, while giving us glimpses of the writer’s past, are never really more than snapshots of a story. As is often the case with Modiano, the reader is forced to fill in the gaps.
The second story, Suspended Sentences, takes us back even further. This one is set in the mid-1950s, when the narrator, ‘Patoche’, and his younger brother are being looked after by a collection of women in a house just outside Paris (their parents are overseas, working in entertainment and business…). The boys are subject to an unusual upbringing, subconsciously soaking up the strange habits of a house of comings and goings. The women and their male visitors lead a rather Bohemian lifestyle, and like the boys, the reader only gradually becomes aware of who the people are and what’s actually going on in their leafy suburb. For the most part, Suspended Sentences is a tale of childhood fun and innocence, yet it builds to a finale of a very different kind.
Finishing off the book is Flowers of Ruin, perhaps the most complex of the three stories. Here Modiano uses multiple strands, starting off with the writer looking back at a news story, a murder-suicide in the 1930s. As he decides to walk through the streets mentioned in the newspaper articles he reads, he actually finds himself retracing the steps he took decades earlier himself, which then leads to memories of an entirely different story. The novella gradually comes to focus more on a man the narrator once knew, a friendly stranger with a secret past, before somehow turning again and becoming a tale of a lost love and a city which has disappeared…
Having read several of Modiano’s short slices of Parisian life already, the three stories in this collection are instantly familiar. As always, the writing is centred around the theme of memory – these are less stories than attempts to make thoughts concrete and organise them in an attempt to understand the past. For the most part, the style is beautifully evocative as the writer struggles to recall past times and examine the memories he dredges up in the light of what he knows now, as an older, wiser man. We see him as someone with as little idea of the truth of his stories as the reader, always peering into shadows, making out vague figures in the fading light of evening.
One of Modiano’s main obsessions is the shadowy life of people trying to make their way through the time of German occupation during the Second World War, including (of course) his father. This comes across particularly strongly in Flowers of Ruin and Suspended Sentences, both of which mention the Rue Lauriston gang his father was involved with. The child of Suspended Sentences is baffled by the comings and goings in the big house:
Little Hélène was playing solitaire on the dining room table and listening to the radio. Mathilde must have been in her bedroom. My brother and I went to ours. Through the window, I watched the 4CV in the rain. They stayed in it, talking, all the way to dinnertime. What secrets could they have been sharing?
Suspended Sentences, p.90
The adult reader, however, is able to read between the lines to work out that little Patoche (a diminutive form of Patrick…) is being cared for by people who prefer to live far away from the watchful eye of the law. The style and themes here are very similar to those of the more recent So You Don’t get Lost in the Neighbourhood, which offers a more detailed examination of this part of Modiano’s childhood.
The three stories here feature various other familiar Modiano tropes. There’s the appeal of darkness approaching, with conversations in rooms gradually losing the light. There are also several encounters between a young boy (or man) and older women, who often come across as mother figures (although not always…). Another common occurrence is the narrator being taken for a ride through the city in a large car by dashing (strange) men, events which (along with all these other memories) will eventually feature in the young writer’s first steps towards a literary career.
In truth, though, the real focus of the three novellas here is the city of Paris. In each of the stories, the protagonists can be found pounding the streets, following long roads through inner and outer suburbs, passing bars, garages and old houses they used to frequent. This is perhaps especially evident in Flowers of Ruin, with the narrator’s journey into the past taking him to deserted buildings and down old paths in a story of the gradual disappearance of the city of his memory. In the course of his story, we are told about buildings long pulled down, overgrown stations, whole quartiers destroyed to make way for the ring roads around the city:
Back then, the gates of Paris were all in vanishing perspectives; the city gradually loosened its grip and faded into barren lots. And one could still believe that adventure lay right around every street corner.
Flowers of Ruin, p.213
These are memories of a very different, simpler life, one which the narrator evidently misses on some level.
As good as the novellas are, the lack of a real story may frustrate some readers, and Modiano certainly makes us work hard to work out what he really wants to discuss (Flowers of Ruin is particularly impenetrable in this regard). Yet for me this is a good era for Modiano’s writing, with none of the craziness of his first couple of books (La Place de L’Étoile, The Night Watch), nor the minimalism of those of the early-21st century (e.g. Little Jewel, Paris Nocturne). The three books work well together, and with Polizzotti’s introduction providing a little background to this stage of Modiano’s career, Suspended Sentences would make an excellent introduction to Modiano’s oeuvre for anyone interested in checking out his work.
As casual as Modiano’s writing can be at times, a nostalgic aching for the past is never far from the surface. He excels in writing about things we’ve lost which, at the time, we never knew we had. It’s true that many of his books are rather similar, but there are subtle differences in the way each story examines the past – and it’s these slight nuances that will keep readers coming back for more…