Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

Fiction – print. Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti. Yale University Press, 2014. 213 pgs. Library copy.

Like many who read solely in English, the announcement that Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature left me a bit confounded. I have never heard of the author and never, to my recollection, seen a review for his work on one of the many book blogs I religiously read.

Journalists and bloggers alike blamed the lack of awareness for his work in English-speaking markets on the lack of translators employed by the publishing industry and the apathy on the part of American readers, in particular, towards translated works. (Assertions that could be addressed in a separate post with a lively discussion, I’m sure.)

Only twelve of Modiano’s works have been translated into English, and this collection of three short novellas is one of only three books written by him available at my public library in English. (The foreign language section has nineteen in French and twelve in Italian, surprisingly.) I am hoping more will follow now that he has won the Nobel given that I stayed up into the wee hours of the night reading this collection, which includes “Afterimages”, “Suspended Sentences”, and “Flowers of Ruin”.

In “Afterimages”, the narrator recounts his time in Paris working as a pseudo-archivist for a mysterious photographer who goes by the name of Jensen and has tasked himself with the job of photographing a city in flux. In “Suspended Sentences”, the narrator recalls his life as a young boy raised by a group of women – particularly a young nanny renamed Snow White – while his mother tours as an actress and the stigma attached to such a situation by his teachers and the principal of his private school. Finally, in “Flowers of Ruin”, the narrator returns to the site of a mysterious double suicide trigging memories from his childhood and igniting a desire, primarily on the part of the reader, to solve the crime.

As I read this collection, I kept flipping to spine of this book to view the call number attached by the library in order to assure myself that this collection is, in fact, fiction. Modiano, whose body of work includes both fiction and nonfiction titles, writes in such a manner that I was never entirely sure where this book lies on that particular divide.

Each story features an unnamed, male narrator possessing the same voice as the previous story; each story concerns itself with how uncertain our memories can be. And as I moved from story to story, I felt as though the narrator was shedding his skin or donning a costume and asking me to decide on which version of his life is true. Which is probably why I stayed up so late reading this and why I’m thankful these three previously published novellas were compiled into a single volume. (If I had to rank the novellas, I would say their order of publication matches my ranking in terms of enjoyment.)

The Nazi occupation of France is more of a central theme in “Afterimages”, but the event is mentioned at least in passing in all three novellas and clearly influences Modiano’s understanding of memory and recollection. These stories and the vision of Paris they present are haunted by this looming, dark ghost, and I was very pleased to find the writing style I saw heavily praised by the Nobel committee is sustained in translation.

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