Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano

I’m waxing nostalgic. I can’t help it in these last few days of official summer in the Bay Area. If you don’t know what that means, think heavy clouds, high humidity, and 64⁰ F — warm in most areas, but not here. For us, it’s winter weather.

But what does this all have to do with the three novellas in this collection by Patrick Modiano, a French writer who won the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature? Well, I’m choosing to focus my nostalgia on mid-century Paris, a time in Paris I didn’t experience. These books read like reminiscences, walks down memory lane by the author donning the guise of his three main protagonists. The author provides so many recognizable (or verifiable) details that these fictional accounts hover constantly along the edges of reality. And, maybe this is what ties these novellas together—that stories we tell, however fictional or even fantastical, somehow always come back to things that are (or were) real in the author’s life. Fiction, for most writers explains and extends who they are.

For Modiano, a French Jew who was born at about the end of World War II, the holocaust is what looms large in that past, and consequently, in his “being.” He makes allusions to it in each of these three novellas, all set just a few years after the war. A major aspect of those allusions relates to his sense of losing someone whose “being” is now condensed in memories. It’s no wonder he won the coveted Nobel “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation.”

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These images and those below are from Doisneau, Paris published by Flammarion, 2006, a book I own.

In the first story, Afterimage, the person who disappears from the life of the young male narrator is a famous (but fictional) photographer whose works the young man admires and offers to catalog for posterity. The photographer, Francis Jansen (typically a Jewish name) wants only to be anonymous and, maybe, forgotten. To live far away, out of the country. One day, he does disappear. We’re not quite sure why but we can speculate, based on the author’s preoccupation with this period in history. Maybe, Jansen wants to forget what happened to Jews like him in the holocaust.

In the second, Suspended Sentences, the child narrator's father is absent from his life. His mother, an actress, is also often away on a show. So, with a younger brother, he lives in an apartment building with a caregiver and a motley of characters who live nearby or come to visit. Characters who become friends, caring for him, giving him some needed affection. While not explicitly said, these friends may have been part of the “Rue Lauriston gang,” a French Gestapo group that did exist. One afternoon, Patoche (the narrator) and his brother come home to find the house empty. Not too long after, police come to investigate his home. He never sees these friends again. As in the first story, although we can guess why they disappear, Modiano doesn’t ever say for sure what the reason is.

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Flowers of Ruin, the third story set in the sixties, is not obviously about personal loss. The male protagonist traces the “footsteps” of a young, newly-married couple who apparently committed a double suicide in the early thirties. The suggestion in the press that this couple went home with, maybe, one or two other couples intrigues him and he sets out to uncover the truth. But thirty years later, the fogginess of memories of various likely witnesses makes this all but impossible.

The sad, inevitable fact of life that threads through these novellas may be this—the uncertainty and finite life of memories, and our inability to grasp them fully, even when we can recount details. In life, as in fiction, those recollected details can only hover along the edges of what really happened. But Modiano tries his darnedest to recall them, sometimes street by street, as if he’s afraid to forget them.

As you read Patrick Modiano’s narrations of the unique stories of his main characters, you’re likely to be drawn into his meditative mood, to look back at your own life. Buried in the nostalgia of that past are little nuggets of ourselves. Nuggets that come to us as memories we coax out of neurons in our brain, or call up from things stashed in garaged boxes. Either way, we have to deal with the fact that not only are those memories foggy, they fleet away after awhile. Maybe, Modiano’s compulsion to rehearse his experience (and that of others he knew) of the holocaust is his way of keeping it alive.

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