Book: Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas, by Patrick Modiano

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm

Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas
by Patrick Modiano
Yale University Press

When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature in October, he was relatively unknown outside his native France, where he was already a bestseller.

Born in 1945, he grew up estranged from his father, a black marketeer; he has described himself as "a product of the dunghill of the Occupation, that bizarre time when people who should have never met did meet and … produced a child".

Such tensions are at work in Suspended Sentences, which gathers three novellas originally published between 1988 and 1993, and now finally available in English. All three take place in a distant Paris, a city not of the imagination so much as of their narrators' memories.

"I'm racking my brains to remember as many details as I can," Modiano writes in Flowers of Ruin, the third novella. "… It was at 19 Boulevard Raspail. In 1965. A grand piano at the very back of the room. The sofa and the two armchairs were made of the same black leather. The coffee table of chrome-plated metal. A name like Devez or Duvelz. The scar on the cheek. The unbuttoned blouse. A very bright light as if from a projector, or rather a flashlight. It lights only a portion of the scene, an isolated instant, leaving the rest in shadow. We will never know what happened next or who those two people really were."

Flowers of Ruin recalls the story of a murder-suicide … or does it? The resolution is left unclear.

In Afterimage, a young man, 19, meets a photographer named Francis Jansen and volunteers to catalogue his archives, which are kept in three leather suitcases in his studio. The title novella revolves around two young boys, the narrator and his younger brother, who come to live with a family friend in a Paris suburb after their actress mother "had gone on the road for a play".

The three novellas in this exquisite collection are mysteries, albeit mysteries of an existential sort. Modiano's characters are engaged in an investigation of consciousness, or identity, which grows more essential the more disconnected they become.

Los Angeles Times