A strange photographer befriended in a café, a secret gang of dissidents taking care of two children, an enigmatic man of many names and pasts—all roaming a forgotten Paris, not quite illuminated by Modiano’s dreamy yet particular wanderings through his own past. Patrick Modiano is a celebrated French author, this year earning the Nobel Prize in Literature for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” The three novellas included in this piece, Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin, are in part autobiographical and detail collected memories of Paris belonging to himself, his elusive parents, and downright strangers. Modiano’s Paris is at once a haze of times from the 1930s to the 1990s, passing and fading into one another so seamlessly that he appears to be creating a miasma of buildings and people and walkways that might once have been called a city. The overall impression is shifty and almost nightmarish, capturing the underlying emotional trial of living in occupied Paris and the echoes that time period left in the fabric of the city. The reader feels at times transgressive, poking into Modiano’s thoughts and memories, while the narrator is sneaking around and investigating the very same in others. The blurring between narrator and author adds to this confusion of time and purpose, leaving the reader no mooring post or inkling of intention; Modiano forces the reader to pick out meaning in the same manner of scavenging for beach glass when the tide goes out. This is no fawning reminiscence of Paris, but rather a scramble of facts with dubious shared significance that attempt to piece together a city that may have not existed.
Modiano’s narrator, always in the first person, creates an effect of non-identity; is he Modiano the author, Modiano the abandoned child, or simply a narrator whose striking similarities serve to elucidate Modiano’s troubled memories? In any case, the reader accompanies a narrator with no declared purpose or identity, as mysterious as the shadowy Paris of the 1930s. While at first this fog is intriguing, it soon becomes as tiring and worrisome as actually being lost in an unknown city— each novella ends without revealing the purpose of the narrator in relating time-dissolved facts and street names. It might be possible to construct a map of Paris using Modiano’s exhaustive lists and catalogues, but even a native Parisian could not produce a realistic one. Fraught with indecision and confusion, each novella imparts similar feelings in the reader without divulging what the reader should do with them.
The most intriguing part of each intersecting novella is the meticulous deluge of information. Modiano sets out dates, times, street addresses, and even past but relevant street addresses which may aid the reader in understanding his frustrated musings. At one point he even adds footnotes to clarify who exactly was part of a secret plot—the plot was never uncovered, real names never disclosed, and the footnotes are in any case fictional. Modiano consistently places setting above any other aspect of his story, which leads to confusion in every other regard outside of an agreement that Modiano has not left Paris.
In typical French literary fashion the narrator is in no rush to be anywhere or do anything, instead nonchalantly accepting invitations to drink with strangers and making capricious decisions to tail familiar faces and uncover their secrets, despite their lack of utility to him. Modiano struggles in vain to find a lost story or memory that even he is not sure existed.
Once the reader has digested the overwhelming sense of being lost and confused, feeling rather like the vagrant orphans Modiano describes, the emotional truthfulness of Modiano’s endeavor takes shape. There is no clarity in life—people fail to ask the right questions, lose once in a lifetime opportunities, and remember things as false or incomplete. With Modiano as a guide, the reader simply gets to see these things as they happen, instead of in retrospect. Not a story for the trailblazers out there, it being a “story” in the loosest sense, but definitely an alternative and darker love song to the rosy Paris most of us are familiar with.
Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano