Friday, 23 January 2015

Suspended Sentences: Three novellas by Patrick Modiano, translated by Mark Polizzotti

Reviewer: Rebecca Johnson

What we thought: Patrick Modiano won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature but I am sure I am not the only one who had not previously heard of him. These three novellas translated into English deal largely with memory and the way it constructs our lives and focus on a young man who catalogues the work of a famous and reclusive photographer; a boy who, with his brother, is fostered by a gang of circus artistes and criminals; and a young man who is fascinated by the story of a double suicide committed by two lovers many years previously. What they have in common is a meticulous detailing of Parisian streets and suburbs, a sense of evanescence and exclusion, the tangential intersection of lives in a city, and a questioning of identity and human subterfuge that is as unsettling as it is mysterious. Over the course of the three novellas, the same places are revisited and characters from one story reappear in another.

I found myself alternately drawn in and repelled by this world. One of the characteristics of Modiano’s writing is his use of precise physical detail – whether that be the plaid bathrobes of the young boys or lists of garages found in a certain quarter of Paris, or the addresses of each person photographed by the photographer earlier in his life. This serves to give the impression of bearing witness, almost of documenting evidence, and at the same time, creates greater mystery, as all these ‘facts’ prove nothing and do not pin down any kind of truth or conclusion. Often they are discarded by the narrator himself as worthless or too effortful to pursue further. It is as if a documentary history is being compiled to shore up memory that in fact serves instead to obscures any sense of the real life or essence of the character by irrelevance, repetition or overstatement, while life slips away elsewhere out of reach. Sentences are repeated and echoed – hence the suspended sentences of the title, which also seem to refer to the criminal underworld that borders the lives of the main characters, and to the nature of their lives – as if they are condemned to live in a kind of hiatus from moment to moment.

The cumulative effect is complex and interesting – particularly in the first two stories – but some might also find it wearing and irritating at times. And while the characters and their worlds are sometimes distant and ultimately unrewarding, yet I was drawn in by the themes and evasions, the absences and the nostalgic tone, and the sense of a weaving together of fragments to create the fabric of city life. Everything is defined by negativity and emptiness. The friends and guardians of the main character leave or are taken away and abandon him mysteriously at the end. Nothing is fixed, certain or palpable here, not the truth, not character or identity, not ‘realism’, not even the solidity of the city. The novellas are all constructed of little scenes or episodes, which could be shuffled around, almost like afterthoughts – or like photographs – in an artificial and arbitrary anti-narrative. In Afterimage, the first novella, there is talk of ‘black holes’ – episodes of life when identity seems to disintegrate. While in the second, Suspended Sentences, the adults’ lives seem utterly mysterious to the boys: they are always disappearing and reappearing, with hints and fragments that the boys try to reconstruct in their imaginations into a coherent story of what they do.

This idea of life and identity as a reconstruction from imagination and memory seems to be a recurring theme. Several times in all the stories the narrator imagines that something might have happened, or that someone’s name was this or that, and then it becomes so for the remainder of the narrative. The borders between imaginary worlds and reality are constantly broken down and he suggests that our own perception of reality is largely imagined from these memory fragments and surmises, rather than anything approaching a true account.

The resulting book is fascinating and profound and I can see why it might lead to the awarding of prizes. It is, however, also very anxious writing, and leaves a constant sense of shifting unease as the reader tries to piece together all the false starts and blind alleys and deliberate thwartings of narrative promise. It is also slightly surreal, in a very French kind of way. At times I was fascinated, at others I found the techniques dry and disturbing, both claustrophobic and empty at the same time. The final story, in particular, felt as if it had been written by someone with some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder. People in Modiano’s world are like ghosts, the living as much as the dead, who wander around the city’s more concrete physical presence, leaving only faint traces and official records of their existence, then disappear unexpectedly never to be seen again.

You will enjoy this if you like: Paris, Samuel Beckett, Kafka, Le Grand Meaulnes, Zazie dans le Metro, Nouvelle Vague cinema.

Avoid if you don’t like: Melancholy, frustration, modernist narrative styles, lack of a happy ending.

Ideal accompaniments: a whisky or Ricard and espresso with a pack of Gauloises in a seedy café-tabac on a rainy street that smells of rotting leaves, listening to the songs of Edith Piaf or Jacques Brel.

Genre: literary fiction

Available from Amazon

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