Suspended Sentences – Patrick Modiano

Monday, 29 December 2014

This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature went to Frenchman Patrick Modiano and, as so often with the literature prize, I’m not alone in never having heard of him. ‘Very well known in France, hardly at all outside the country,’ is the comment. In fact most of his books aren’t even translated into English, although no doubt that’s changing.

Suspended Sentences

So I read Suspended Sentences, a collection of three novellas – Afterimage (Chien de Printemps in French), Suspended Sentences and Flowers of Ruin.

• Modiano’s writing often reflects on his own life and on France during the WW II ‘Occupation.’ That certainly applies to Suspended Sentences, the title novella. Modiano could easily be the young protagonist, left with a colourful group of minders while his father’s away in Africa (and South America?) and his mother’s on a theatrical tour, somewhere. The curious ambivalent story of France during the occupation also features.

• He’s noted for his treatment of memory, what we make out of it and how often it’s incomplete. That features in all three stories, there’s reflection on what has happened and very often it’s remarkably unclear what was going on. I burst out laughing as I finished the final page of Suspended Sentences, because it had been a page turner, hauling you towards its conclusion and suddenly – just as predicted – there was no conclusion, you were dropped over the edge with no idea of what happened to any of the main characters.

• Modiano is also noted for his detailed examination of Paris, you may not know what’s going on, but you certainly know exactly where you are. When I read Keith Richards’ Life I was constantly Googling people, with this one it was places. I’ve lived in Paris for a year so I do know my way around, but I had Google Maps always online because I don’t think I’ve ever read a book which was so completely focussed on street names.

The focus on the Occupation in his books is particularly interesting right now because of the current exhibit at the National Archives in Paris titled Collaboration 1940-1945. It also reminds me of the Anthony Beevor/Artemis book Paris After the Liberation 1944-1949, one of the most interesting books I’ve read about Paris and a book which certainly underlines the confusions of French society following the Occupation.