Suspended Sentences

201411-award-books-fall-slide2-949x1356Patrick Modiano, 1993
Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, 2014

“I entered the gardens, slicing through the people massed around the fence. Every bench and every chair was filled and the paths were crowded. Young people were sitting on the terrace rails and the steps leading down to the main fountain, so thick that you couldn’t get to that part of the garden. But none of it mattered. I was happy to lose myself in that crowd and – as Jansen would have said – to blend into the surrounding.” (56)

I chose the above passage as an introduction to my summary of this book to illuminate the hazy images and sense of losing oneself in a crowd that pervades this collection of works. This book titled Suspended Sentences is a collection of Patrick Modiano’s three novellas titled Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin. Although not originally written as a collection or depicting a congruent story-line, the translator Polizzotti explains that Modiano had said that “those books form a single work …. I thought I’d written them discontinuously, in successive boughts of forgetfulness, but often the same faces, the same names, the same places, the same sentences recur from one to the other” (ix).  The use of language throughout the works depicts a feeling of disconnected dreaminess that is vaguely specific to an internal dialogue gathering understanding of what cannot be understood.

“I crossed through the gardens. Was it because of meeting that ghost? Or in the alleys of the Luxembourg, where I hadn’t walked in ages? In the late afternoon light, it seemed to me that the years had become conflated and time transparent.” (153)

Each of the stories is told through the voice of a first-person narrator recounting times-past and fuzzy recollections of interactions with individuals that had an impact on the narrator’s previous life. The narrative recollections are told in such a way that they are depicted as though the narrator is a detective – not a detective of any heinous crime – but a detective trying to piece together the meaning of one’s past in relation to the present. These stories don’t have a strong sense of plot, but that isn’t what drives them. Their purpose is to create a feeling of shadows and mystery that draw the reader into the vague world of memory and disorientation while creating a sense of place that is both particular and universal at the same moment.

“I was losing my memory and couldn’t understand French anymore, as the words of the the women next to me had now become no more than onomatopoeias in my ear. The efforts I’d made for thirty years to have a trade, give my life some coherence, try to speak and write a language as best I could so as to be certain of my nationality – all that tension suddenly released. It was over. I was nothing now.” (57)

Although I’ve indicated that these stories lack a cohesive plot, each story does have a unique identity that could be identified as a plot. Afterimage tells the story of the narrator’s relation to a photographer named Jansen who collected thousands of images through his lifetime. The narrator was a lifetime friend of Jansen’s and much of the story is the narrator recalling his encounters with Jansen as he views and catalogs Jansen’s massive photo collection for a book. The meaning of image and memory bears significant impact throughout this story. Suspended Sentences recalls the narrator piecing together memories of his childhood and in these memories he stares at the odd puzzle of his unorthodox family structure and their  questionably legal trade practices. The story transitions back and forth from a boyhood narrator to the adult narrator piecing together an understanding of his family’s practices that he did not fully understand in his youth. And finally Flowers of Ruin is the most mysterious of the three stories, beginning first as what appears to be an actual mystery story investigating a homicide-suicide of two lovers, but as the story progresses it becomes more clear that this crime had actually taken place a generation prior and is only one of many intrigues gravitating the varied attentions of the narrator.

What gives these stories a distinctiveness is their ability to create an uncertainty with nostalgia, depicting the past as a periphery to the present. These are haunting, elusive works that intrigue with each word on the page.

“It was while waiting on the platform of the Melun station for the branch line to Fossombrone that my mood shifted. The early afternoon sun, the few travelers, and the thought of visiting people whom I’d only seen once, fifteen years before, and who had probably either died of forgotten me, suddenly made everything seem unreal.” (38)

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About hardlyregistered

The meandering observations of a 30 something guy.
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