Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano
Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano, Yale University Press, 232 pages Finding a translation of a foreign-language book can require doggedness on the part of American readers. Even the books of Nobel Prize-winner Patrick Modiano were, until recently, rare commodities here. Last October, after exhausting several sources, I ordered one of Modiano’s better-known books,
Missing Person , through an Amazon vendor. Two and a half weeks later, I was disappointed to get an email from the vendor that said, “We are informing you regarding your package we shipped to you but, unfortunately the carrier had brought it back to us. The item inside the package was badly water damaged during transit. It was the last one we had. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience.” Had the vendor found a higher bidder on eBay, or did the book really did get waterlogged on its way to the New Mexico desert?
In any case, I welcomed the recent publication of Suspended Sentences , an English translation of three novellas by Modiano. Bound together for the first time, all three novellas explore the themes of memory and identity. It might be interesting to bear in mind that Modiano once said, “I have the impression of writing the same book for 45 years.” In the first novella, Afterimage , a writer sets out to write a biography of a photographer whom he met at nineteen and who has since disappeared. At one point, the writer-narrator isn’t sure if he himself isn’t the photographer, Jansen, a man 30 years his senior. “Don’t let it faze you, kid,” Jansen had advised the narrator in a café — as he might well advise the reader — “I’ve fallen into my share of black holes too.”
Thirty years later, the narrator finds himself echoing what he’d once perceived as Jansen’s inexplicable behavior: not answering the phone and disappearing one June evening with a “phantom dog.” Modiano excels at evoking moods and times that cannot be retrieved in any way but through the power of art. Jansen once went to an apartment to deliver a message to the relatives and girlfriend of a friend from the Drancy internment camp, but he found no one there. “And so, feeling helpless, he’d taken those photos so that the place where his friend and his friend’s loved ones had lived would at least be preserved on film.” Modiano’s writing can be compared to a series of photographs, at once detailed and atmospheric, that evoke the complexities within Paris during the German occupation there.
The portraiture of Paris, of crisscrossing it on foot, is one of the most striking features of Modiano’s work. A vivid scene of young people hanging out in a city park triggered images of my three-week stay there a decade ago, when I’d walked to the Luxembourg Garden almost every day. What American tourists see (and want to see) is the romantic side of Paris. During my stay, I became smitten with the Bibliothèque nationale de France. From where I was staying, a half-hour walk from the Luxembourg Garden, it was a long bus ride to the national library. The bus took me along the outskirts of Paris, through sections that were completely unlike the gardens, museums, and boulevards I’d savored so far. I saw that Paris, like any other metropolitan city, has its marginal areas, its ugly sores.
In the wake of January’s Paris attacks, there has finally been some reporting about the marginal Paris, about the deeper problems that ail France, especially the lack of integration. Several Muslim communities live in banlieues — suburbs, often populated by the working class and by immigrants — which are sometimes described as ghettos and which recall the marginalization of parts of the African-American population in the U.S. Still, walking and public parks are charms that are open to all. At least one of the Kouachi brothers used to congregate with young Muslim men in Buttes-Chaumont, a public park in Paris, and the police referred to these men as the Buttes-Chaumont group.
Walking back and forth from the bus stop to the Bibliothèque, it was easy to befriend other young people — for instance, a young woman wanting to practice her English. We then met in cafés so we could talk more. Having experienced this, I was less surprised at the ease with which Guy, the narrator
of Missing Person , is able to arrange conversations with strangers who have some connection to his past. More often than not, he’s invited to their apartments. In such settings, he might find himself sitting on a bed or an armchair while his host, whom he has met just hours ago, reminisces or shows him a box of photos. In a photographer’s satiny apartment, Guy observes, “I had walked over to the window and was looking down at the rails of the Montmartre funicular, the gardens of the Sacré Coeur and, further off, the whole of Paris, with its lights, its roofs, its shadows. Denise Coudreuse and I had met one day in this maze of roads and boulevards. Paths that cross, among those of thousands and thousands of people all over Paris, like countless little balls on a gigantic, electric billiard table, which occasionally bump into each other. And nothing remained of this, not even the luminous trail a firefly leaves behind it.”
French writers are at liberty to give dominance to mood or a quiet yearning in a way that’s not acceptable in contemporary American fiction — at least not in the kind published by mainstream houses. Rather than arranging his material to suit any notion of plot, Modiano trusts the effect of unfolding layer upon layer of memory: He puts the reader in the company of what amounts to a close friend who is recalling intriguing fragments from the past.
In the novella Suspended Sentences , a little boy, Patoche, and his brother live for a year with their mother’s friend Annie. The boys witness Annie’s friendships with Little Hélène and two men. Most of this gang later ends up in prison for political reasons, but the boys only experience the glamour of the friendships. They’re treated, for instance, to a bumper-car ride in Versailles. The boys become fascinated with the unusual colors — turquoise, very pale green — of the bumper cars. “The next time,” Little Hélène tells them, “I’ll take you to see the palace.”
When we saw the Palace of Versailles, our French host lingered in the gardens, photographing their highly formal features. Modiano rightly suggests that ostensibly minor details (a bumper car, for instance) can grow into a persistent memory. I still remember how, that morning, our French host stopped to get us almond croissants from “the best bakery in Paris.” We ate them on the train to Versailles.
The ending of Suspended Sentences is quietly devastating. It becomes clear why Patoche’s search for the faces and places, including a garage he got to know during his year with Annie, are important to him as a young man. This story could have been written in many different ways. In Modiano’s hands, that year’s charms are summoned up, without too many details, and somehow we understand why Patoche, also a writer, wants to return to that time, if only in his fiction.
Occasionally a historic reference — Churchill’s funeral, for example — pegs down the billowing sheets of memory. An intriguing detail or place will stand out: an elevator lined with red velvet, people dining “beneath the arbor” of a small restaurant, the precise way the light falls in a café.
In Missing Person , Guy tries to trace vanished people in order to reconstruct his past, which has vanished as well. Guy walks the streets of Paris or stops at a nightclub to look for a person who might be able to illuminate some strand from his past. One man offers Guy a red box of photographs — he’s eager to leave his past behind because it’s “too sad” to think about. The head of the detective agency Guy used to work for once said to him that the sand “keeps the traces of our footsteps only a few moments.” Later, Guy is vindicated when this man writes a letter to him in which he tells him, “You were right to tell me that in life it is not the future which counts, but the past.” We don’t hear sentiments like this much anymore, and they point to one reason why Modiano’s work is valuable. He jolts us out of the everydayness of the present and lights up the back alleys of the past before they’re dimmed forever.