Yale University Press, 2014
Paperback, 232 pp., $16
Reviewed by Nathan Leslie
Last fall, when I heard that Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, I met the news with a torpid shrug. Of course, I’m delighted for Modiano—an accomplished author of numerous novels over the past forty-plus years—but at the same time, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the role of prizes in the literary sphere in general. Here’s the thing: Literary prizes act as a natural filter for the reading public who otherwise wouldn’t read (much less be acquainted with) a certain author—this year, Patrick Modiano. This irony cuts both ways: The prize educates us, but it also lends preference to the winner over hundreds upon hundreds of other worthy authors. Prizes act as a kind of running literary canon, unfairly so—selecting a lucky few and ignoring the rest. Like crows to shiny objects, we are suckers for a gold sticker on a book jacket (Winner!); prizes are most rewarding for the author, the prize-giver, and the publisher. But we know all this; nothing I have written thus far is news.
More importantly: Why have literary prizes at all? Why pit one writer against another? Why the need to insert competition into an activity—writing (and reading)—that is inherently non-competitive? (I rarely enter literary prizes for this reason, among others.) Why the excessive hysteria and hand-wringing? At a certain level, often, one writer is not necessarily better or worse than another—just different, and aesthetic tastes are subjective and gnarly. The entire prize exercise is gratuitous and frankly vestigial; we can image that the $1.1 million for the winner could be better spent on something more productive—literacy campaigns, for instance.
Along the lines of hype, I read many of the 240-plus comments by New York Times readers on the Times website accompanying the October 9, 2014 Alter and Bilefsky piece reporting the good news. Reader commentary vacillated between the insightful (Israeli writers Oz, Appelfeld, and Grossman are just as worthy; Americans don’t read Francophone novels) and the moronic (John Le Carré should’ve won—duh). But why the debate and at what cost? Don’t we have better things to do with our time than wrangle about which author is more deserving and why?
Stripped away from politics and brouhaha, Suspended Sentences is a lovely, supple book of three novellas rife with haunted nostalgia and yearning. As translator Mark Polizzotti’s vital introduction tells us, these novellas were published over the course of five years, and though they are not interrelated, they are of a whole. Yes, they are: all three novellas are soaked with memory and a sense of a time lost, which gives the book as a whole a melancholy, bittersweet air. Personally, I found the moody quality of Modiano’s prose compelling, though others may find it tiresome or overly digressive.
Plot is primarily of the second order in this particular book. Modiano tends to loosely string events together so that he can investigate the real subject matter at hand—evoking the Paris of his youth. In the first (and most tightly plotted and efficacious) novella of the three, “Afterimage,” the first-person narrator reflects back upon a time in his apprenticeship as a writer (he was nineteen) when he knew a photographer by the name of Francis Jansen. Jansen has a tendency for disappearing—either by travelling elsewhere or, more importantly, for his art, vanishing into the background to better capture the world around him on film. To say Jansen comes and goes is a brash understatement. In the meantime, the narrator hangs out with Nicole in Jansen’s studio, trying to avoid Gil the Mime (yes, really), Nicole’s jealous husband. Cafés, séances, and Jansen’s more famous buddy, Robert Capra, play small roles. Though episodic, the novella uses the snapshot structure well, each little two- or three-page section operating as a kind of portal into this world.
The second story (the title novella) contains some of the most beautiful prose of the three in Polizzotti’s sublime translation. The narrator in this story, Patoche, reflects upon a time when he was ten years old. His parents essentially abandon Patoche and his brother at the house of some friends of hers in a town “just outside of Paris.” The house where they stay is lovely but occupied only by women—Annie, Helene Toch, and Mathilde, Annie’s mother—all of whom do the best they can with the two boys. What complicates the story are the numerous secondary characters who pop up throughout the novella—friends, neighbors, love interests, employees (one named Snow White features prominently). There’s an amusing character by the name of Roger Vincent, who wheels his big American car around town: “It stopped in front of the house like a speedboat with its motor cut off, carried in by the tide to berth silently on the shore.” As a result of the episodic structure of this novella—more an account of a time period than a causal narrative, “Suspended Sentences” feels much more autobiographical and probing than “Afterimage.” What emerges from this wistful stew, however, is the disclosure that an acquaintance of the group—Louis Pagnon—may have saved Patoche’s father in the occupation. Patoche hits the archives in an attempt to figure out the puzzle and tries to track down Pagnon’s garage, where Pagnon used to work as a mechanic. The building is long gone. At the conclusion of the novella, the prose circles back to abandonment, ending with, “And my brother and I, we pretended to play in the garden, waiting for someone to come collect us.”
The final novella, “Flowers of Ruin,” is so episodic (bouncing between a past murder-suicide and reflections upon Parisian neighborhoods, cafés, and bookstores) that I initially had a difficult time finding its focal point. Eventually, however, the novella zeroes in on Philippe de Bellune (aka Pacheco), who was wanted for “colluding with the enemy, who might or might not have survived the Dachau concentration camp.” Ultimately, in one of the most gripping passages of the book, the narrator opens his luggage, only to find an identity card which (not to spoil) reveals an interesting identity twist. Overall, I found “Flowers of Ruin” a vexing read, in that it was so intermittent as to deny the reader any thread of a consistent narrative at all.
For my money, it is worth reading this collection of novellas for its evocation of a lost time, if not just for a different perspective on narration altogether. Modiano’s prose is extremely diffuse at times, which can prove a challenge for readers who prefer a tighter storyline and/or rich characterization (if you dislike anti-climax, Modiano is not the writer for you). However, I find his languor and searching prose persuasive and pretty enough to make the ride, for the most part, worthwhile. It is impossible to tell whether or not these novellas are intended as lightly-cloaked autobiography. Polizzotti makes the case in his introduction that several parallels exist between the author’s life and work. I read these three novellas as reflections, rather than pure fiction—but even so, the scattered quality of the prose can act as a distraction. A greater problem with Suspended Sentences as a whole are the numerous secondary characters that float in and out of the prose (especially in the title story), sometimes disappearing entirely. This does capture a certain reality; people float in and out of our lives. But with so many strings untied, the narratives become overly raggedy and thin.
French prose still lingers under the considerable shadows of the nouveau roman authors, Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet in particular, evident in Modiano’s prose on every page. There is the flat delivery, relative plotlessness, striking imagery, and cruelty lurking just beneath the surface (the occupation, in this case). Polizzotti has also, not surprisingly, translated Duras. But somehow, Modiano has carved out his own distinct voice in this shadow, his own preoccupations. Prize or no prize, his work is worth reading and investigating, and Suspended Sentences is a good start. One hopes that, with the Nobel Prize in hand, an interested reader might be able to find more of his books in English translation.