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Patrick Modiano: Suspended Sentences
three novellas translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti [2014] | originally published as: Chien de printemps (1993), Remise de peine (1988), and Fleurs de Ruine (1991)

§ Patrick Modiano. French, won this year's Nobel. Writes for chicks, you might think, as his work lacks serious conflict and thrives on the adolescent sensibility, that is, nostalgia for the first impressions of life. Literary writing tends to be "I-remember-when" -- indeed, the fading past is probably the most dynamic source of all art, except for near-field trauma such as war or love or illness. The relaxed feel to his writing has to be a large part of his appeal, the poetic placement of his imagery within the recollection. He paints rather than reports; he photographs rather than judges; he smiles rather than frowns.

Patrick Modiano: Suspended Sentences

§ Novella I, Afterimage: "And I pictured him there alone, sitting at the far end of the sofa listening to the rings as they followed each other in the silence...." No , it's not Jay Gatsby ignoring the phone, although there's a similar sense of enigma about Modiano's character Jansen, the post-war photographer and protége of "Robert Capa" (Capa/Friedmann the famous war photographer); Jansen, who befriends the narrator (Modiano) when he's still a teenager living in Paris; Jansen, who gives "I" his Rolliflex camera, perhaps as a reward for organizing his portfolio, although he doesn't seem to put much worth in his own photos. He's heading for Mexico anyway.

The conflict, such as there is, comes from Jansen's relationship with Nicole, the young (actress) wife of a Left Bank performance artist called Gil the Mime. Gil isn't cool with this affair, despite the bohemian world they all live in, although the reader is never given any exact details. They associate, maybe they copulate, sometimes they perambulate, have a meal, talk a little. At some point Modiano actually becomes Jansen. Meanwhile Gil takes on the menace of a symbolic carnival figure like Death in Marcel Camus' film Black Orpheus (1958)... and in fact there's an unreality about the narrator's perceptions that are not dissimilar to the sociopathic Meursault in L'Etranger by the other Camus, Albert. It's just a cultural tone, a stylistic, as Modiano's alter-ego is never put to a moral litmus test like Albert Camus' character Meursault.

The narrative follows a series of short scenes or chapters which can be considered verbal snapshots, and not a bad idea for a story about a photographer... or is this a story about a novelist who can't find a plot, even though he tries to organize a series of photographs into some sort of narrative? For those seeking a motivated sequence of beginning-middle-and-end, forget it. Despite the slick writing, the last few chapters or snapshots do little to advance the action, for, by the time Jansen exits, the subsequent chapters/photos read like different versions of a conclusion. Is this good? Or is it merely the same photo from different angles? An "end" or "ending" probably isn't part of Modiano's way of doing business. The 'postponement of the arrival' is the game, as all resolution is left in the future.

"Some day I'll manage to break through that layer of silence and amnesia."

Bourgeois, evasive, elliptic, yet full of romanticism behind the nuanced alienation. Old selves dissolve into new selves. The final piece of wisdom seems a bit strained but in general Modiano is very good with resonating metaphors. Read it, try and remember what it's about. You'll be surprised by the space between memory and amnesia.

§ Novella II: Suspended Sentences has the naive charm of early Picasso when he was painting circus folk -- acrobats, clowns, harlequins, dancers and animal props. It's a thespian world where everyone is acting even when the stage is in the imagination of a boy or a boy imagined by a man. Patroche (Modiano as a child) is a bit like a male Madeline and this meta-memoir is like a refit of the popular Ludwig Bemelman children's series about a young Parisian adventuress. So the imagery floats between children's lit and French film noir.

The narrator's mother is an actress, away from Paris with a theatre group in North Africa, leaving her two young sons in the care of four women at a house on the Rue du Docteur-Dordaine: Little Hélène, a former circus acrobat; Annie who wears tight pants, girlfriend of a gangster; Annie's mother, who claims to have a seeing eye in the bun on the back of her head; Snow White, the young girl they hire to mind the kids when they have other business to attend to. The house turns out to be the former abode of Dr. Guillotine, the inventor of the execution machine, and his grave is in the garden. "Patoche" attends the Joan of Arc school nearby but is soon expelled by the principal for no apparent good reason other that he was dropped off one morning by a man (Roger Vincent) in a flashy American saloon... or because he wore an expensive wrist watch loaned to him and his brother by another shady associate of the caretaker women, John D. (a.k.a Buck Danny). The expulsion is baffling to the kid, although as the narrative advances and his mind matures, he has suspicions that eventually come true.

The writing has a liquid ease about it -- literary but not crudely clever, clotted with pretty rhetoric or strained figures. There are lines, some of them very good i.e. "We glided on slack water." Or, describing Annie: "Her blond hair formed a stain on the thin light."

In its French version, SS was called Remise de peine (Editions du Seuil, 1988) and is admitted autobiography, that is, the author in his twenties recalls his boyhood back in 1952. The story never seems to develop beyond fantasy interludes at a chateau near an abandoned airfield (echoes of the French 'Buck Danny' aviation comics) (like Biggles UK or Steve Canyon USA) and casual social visits by a man called Roger Vincent and another known as John D. who could be Buck Danny or an avatar. As the memoir is occasionally hallucinatory, you just don't know what's legit and what's questionable. Patoche and his brother are treated to a ride on the bumper cars; later they decide to build a bumper car track with some boards in the back courtyard, and lo, one day a green bumper car materializes, a discard supposedly rescued by Roger Vincent. Fact or fantasy? Reliable or unreliable? You just don't know as the narrative allows mystery to shape make-believe into history.

Buck Danny

The memory of a memory -- the old conundrum.

Sometimes the narrative refocuses to the adult Patoche. Towards the end he accidentally encounters Vincent now driving a Jaguar and accompanied by another young silent woman. Patoche is now a struggling apprentice writer in an unheated dump somewhere in Paris. It's a difficult reunion, as Patoche knows from the newspapers that Vincent spent some time in prison for some sort of larceny. After they part, Patoche finds 2000 francs on his table. Remission worthy? Could be, although the "good" in the Rue du Docteur-Dordain gang is quickly established simply by how well the two cast-off boys are treated by this surrogate family. They're de facto orphans, yet they are privileged to live a children's story-book adventure courtesy of some kindly crooks.

It should be noted that remission is an article of French law allowing an inmate to have his sentence reduced if he meets certain conditions. The French publication title Remise de peine obviously infers a moral clemency for Roger Vincent, Buck Danny, Annie & her mother and Little Hélène. In his articulate foreword translator Mark Polizzotti explains the difficulties presented by a literal translation of the original title; his choice of 'Suspended Sentences' certainly fits the moral of the story and describes Patrick Modiano's metaphysics exactly.

The title is a pun, referring both to the criminal back story and the "suspended" style where the author never cuts-to-the-chase if he can detour into some descriptive sidebar which may or may not help the reader understand just exactly what's going on. Perhaps it has appeal for those who love words for words' sake. Perhaps it supports the atmosphere, shares the love. Perhaps it's simply another way to tell a story without resorting to sex and violence.

If you need a clear through-line, you'll be disappointed. There's little or no conflict to drive the action, just a series of scenes and portraits that happen as they occur to the narrator. Unlike most literary writers who just change the names and post their journal as fiction, Modiano admits the memoir, and in typical Gallic fashion is greeted as avant-garde. Other writers have done it although the approach has gained momentum in the post-modern era. The political necessity of hiding in fiction has diminished, and so has the need for 'plot' (unless one is writing about a conspiracy). Modiano is such a writer. Memory, nostalgia and fantasy are his weapons... and while he's a damn good writer line-by-line, the lack of conflict and the disorderly sense of Time in Suspended Sentences will cause a lot of readers to drop out fairly quickly. No wonder his work has been largely ignored in North America even though he's been publishing steadily in France for years.

This evasiveness, this piling on of place names and people -- what to make of it? Art is the correction of a neurosis, says Freud. Modiano is a bit like a drunk who has a story to tell but who can never get to the point as he keeps vanishing into personalized asides, laced with nostalgia and sentimentality and irrelevant ghosts. You might marvel at the performance, yet grow impatient with the indulgence.

That's the brutal view. For those who persevere, the beauty of the writing might overcome the voyeur's hunger for forbidden thrills and easy space travel.

§ III... Flowers of Ruin: here 'I' plays voyeur detective for no real reason other than geographic curiosity. Once again Modiano writes like a man serving time in prison who has nowhere to go but meander through his memories, especially those that form puzzles, hang in the mind like unresolved chords. People he encountered, then forgot -- surely they were exotic criminals, impoverished aristocrats, funky artists etc etc?

Once again many will find the details foreign and frustrating, while others will no doubt luxuriate in the poetic impressionism. There are some killer lines, mystical descriptions, and an orchestral atmosphere that borders on pedantic madness. The passivity of the narrator is anti-dramatic, as he drifts through Time and Space like a camera, ducking the responsibility that goes with being a bonafide protagonist. What is he, you wonder -- animal, vegetable or mineral? Well, it's like he studied some old tour guides to Paris, some news clippings, cannibalized them, then montaged them into the narrative.

Does Modiano use the cutup method of textural montage? Who knows... possibly he's a cultural archaeologist... but a novelist? If you try to reduce the action to the essentials, isolate the through-line, would Flowers even be a short story? Not really. Causality is vague, characters are left hanging, and the narrative is occult; it's as if Modiano fell asleep with his head on a stack of paper, later awoke to find this perfectly imperfect story printed and ready to go.

It's maddening, these narratives where asides and transitions are as important -- if not more so -- to Modiano than the actual scenes that pass as action. He's a sadist, you think, and you must be a masochist for hanging in there. And then, just when you're ready to jump, he hits you with a character or a scene that makes you purr like a sedated monkey.

"Behind me, the jukebox was playing an Italian song. The stench of burned tires floated in the air. A girl was walking under the leaves of the trees along Boulevard Jourdan. Her blond bangs, cheek-bones, and green dress were the only note of freshness on that early August afternoon. Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insoluble mysteries, when life was there, in all its simplicity, beneath the sun?"

The characters fleet... the philosopher in the ratty Shetland pullover... the New Wave starlet... Pacheco the Peruvian air steward (who might be the former German collaborator Philip de Bellune, maybe interned at Dachau) (aka Charles Lombard, waiter)... Jacqueline, the narrator's girlfriend who really has no character at all... Tony in the plaid shirt, the Danish girl who swears but likes the young wannabe writer... Claude Bernard, part of the old Rue Lauriston Gang along with the elusive Pagnon who ends up as a bouncer wearing shades outside a club ("a sentinel for all Eternity")... Simone, the former secretary of Modiano's father (probably his mistress)... the once famous goalie... et al. There are enough editions noir characters to keep you going if you just forget about any resolution.

And in two of the stories Modiano inherits a suitcase from one of the characters... having assigned them to oblivion, the author is the only benefactor. Intriguing. Freud said, art is... well, you get it.

The narrator is sitting in the darkened apartment with "Jacqueline of the Avenue Rodin" as it rains steadily outside. Her old lover (literally old) the Marquis has followed them back, hammers on the door. She doesn't stir. The Marquis returns to the street, stands watching the window. "Little by little, that man melted into the wall."

'I' picks up a stray dog and he and Jacqueline take a train to Vienna. The dog business might remind some of the dog in Marcel Carne's 1938 film Port of Shadows. Just a thought; these post-modern writers do like movies; the 'memory of a memory', you know.

"Back then, the gates of Paris were all in vanishing perspective; the city gradually loosened its grip and faded into barren lots. And one could still believe that adventure lay right around every street corner...."

Great writer, no question... but a lousy story teller? You decide. You can get him here:

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