I received an advanced review copy of this book from Yale University Press through NetGalley. This book is the compilation of three French novellas that have been translated into English by Mark Polizzotti.
I love to review short stories as well as longer works of fiction. These three stories by Patrick Modiano occupy the space somewhere between a short story and a full length work of fiction. This collection of stories, or novellas, are all set in Paris in the mid-twentieth century. They are all told from a first person point of view and are a bit rambling, almost as if they were the diaries or personal memoirs of the narrator in each story. The narratives jump from place to place and back and forth between different periods of time. It can be hard to keep track of where the author is trying to lead us. The tone of these tales are also very brooding, sad and even melancholy.
In the first novella, “Afterimage,” a woman meets a famous photographer while she is at a café in Paris. The photographer, whose name is Jansen, is an eccentric genius who eventually withdraws from the rest of the world. The narrator has volunteered to catalog his vast array of photographs which lay in old trunks in his studio. Jansen calls her “scribe” and she observes the odd habits of the artist until one day he completely drops out of sight, never to be heard from again. As the woman gets older and her own life seems unfulfilled, she begins to understand Jansen’s choice of disappearing.
The second novella, entitled “Suspended Sentences,” is narrated by a 10 year old boys whose parents have left him with an eclectic group of friends to look after him and his younger brother. The boy tells us about the different people he lives with, the neighbors he encounters near his home and the visitors he meets when they are entertained in his home. There is an underlying sadness in his narrative as the boy tries to grow up in this strange world without real guidance and nurturing from parental figures. Have you ever tried to follow a young child as he or she tells a long story? It can be difficult, to say the least, and one has to really concentrate to follow it. All three novellas have disjointed and muddled storylines but in “Suspended Sentences” this narrative technique is the most fitting since the narrator of this story is a child.
The final novella in the collection, “Flowers of Ruin,” deals with a man who lives in Paris with his girlfriend and the narrative is a series of descriptions of places and people he encounters in Paris. Mysterious strangers come and go in his life and at one point he is following in the footsteps of the last days of a couple who committed suicide. This last story did not keep my attention as well as the other two because it meandered so much. Just when I would become invested in a character or event that the narrator was describing, he would abruptly switch the time frame and pick up a description of something else entirely.
I am not sure that reading these novellas is the best place to start if you to try Patrick Modiano’s writings. If you enjoy a Parisian setting and an eccentric and circuitous story then give SUSPENDED SENTENCES a try.
About The Author:
He is a winner of the Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française in 1972, the Prix Goncourt in 1978 for his novel Rue des boutiques obscures and of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014.