The poignant beauty of Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences

August 12, 2015 at 1:32 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

9780300198058 Just a brief shout out here for the terrific job Genie did last night in leading the discussion of Suspended Sentences for the Usual Suspects. Author Patrick Modiano was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. Up until that time, he was not well known to the general public in this country, and few of his works had been translated into English.

Suspended Sentences consists of three novellas: Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin. After giving us some fascinating background on Modiano’s life, Genie led us through the discussion of each of these, ultimately focusing on what binds them one to another. This proved to be more a matter of tone and theme than of story and character. In fact, the novellas were singularly devoid of a conventionally structured plot. But an overarching sadness, coupled with a certain guilt and unease, pervades all three. Autobiographical elements strongly predominate.

As one reads, the series of loosely related incidents and elusive characters acquires a cumulative power. It is a quiet power, and that makes the book all the more effective and memorable.

For myself, I can say that brief though it is, I struggled to get through this book. For one thing, Modiano includes a great deal of specific detail about  the Paris that once was and is no more. For those of us who barely know the city, or don’t know it at all, this tendency on the author’s part presented a stumbling  block. In addition, I love a good story, and I could not detect one in these pages. But gradually the mood established a hold over me. This was aided by the beauty of the writing, and by implication, the excellence of Mark Polizzotti’s translation.

We spoke of the recurrence of rain, raincoats, and sudden disappearances as themes and symbols in Modiano’s work. One of my favorite passages includes all three:

 I hadn’t moved from the window. Under the pouring rain, he crossed the street and went to lean against the retaining wall of the steps we had walked down shortly before. And he stood there, unmoving, his back against the wall, his head raised toward the building façade. Rainwater poured onto him from the top of the steps, and his jacket was drenched. But he did not move an inch. At that moment a phenomenon occurred for which I’m still trying to find an explanation: had the street lamp at the top of the steps suddenly gone out? Little by little, that man melted into the wall. Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him, the way water dilutes a fresco that hasn’t had time to dry properly. As hard as I pressed my forehead against the glass and peered at the dark gray wall, no trace of him remained. He had vanished in that sudden way that I’d later notice in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself these people had really existed.

At the beginning of our discussion, Genie brought up the question of whether  Suspended Sentences could rightly be considered a mystery. She suggested that after all, this is a work about seeking and investigating a mystery – or perhaps, several mysteries. This seems to me a reasonable assessment, up to a point. Although I don’t see this work as crime fiction in the accepted, conventional sense, I do see the reason in Genie’s suggested approach. Modiano can be seen as investigating the mystery of life itself – in other words, Mystery with a capital M. And yet, isn’t this what most great literature, whatever the genre, strives to  do?

Patrick Modiano in 1969

Patrick Modiano in 1969


Patrick Modiano in 2014

Patrick Modiano in 2014

The Nobel Prize for Literature is famous for being awarded to writers who are largely unknown. But in 2013, the Nobel committee achieved a major course correction by selecting the brilliant Alice Munro for this well deserved accolade. (This was “Stop the Presses” moment in our house!) Still, I was rather amused to discover a “Find the Author” word game on the Nobel site. Indeed, almost every year, the press and literature lovers alike have had to scramble to ‘find the author!’

Once more: kudos to Genie for the immense amount of hard work and conscientious consideration that obviously went into her presentation last night. Next month, she and Carol are off to Scotland for yet another British Mystery Trip. Have a terrific time, ladies!
The Suspects being made up of passionate book lovers, certain other (unrelated) titles came up in the course of last night’s discussion. To the best of my recollection, here they are:

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matter in the End, by Atul Gawande

The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud

Sisters of Fortune: America’s Caton Sister at Home and Abroad, by Jehanne Wake (A blog post on this title will appear shortly in this space.)



1 Comment

  1. Pauline Cohen said,

    I’d like to add the film “Bon Voyage” to the list of Modiano’s works that was mentioned last night. I saw the film in 2003 when it was new so my memory of it is rather hazy, but I do remember it as being part madcap comedy and part very real drama. The action takes place at a time when people are fleeing Paris as the Nazis take control.

    A book I would like to recommend on the subject of the exodus from Paris during that same period is “Suite Francaise”. I wish I had mentioned it last night. It has its own back story of the author’s life (her name escapes me although I own the book). Her life is easily as interesting as the book. Have you done a blog on it in the past?

    Roberta, you’re right. Genie did an excellent job with 3 novellas that were often elusive–hard to pin down –shape shifters is the term I would use to describe them. We keep changing our opinion and our understanding as each story progresses. Perhaps I’m repeating the thoughts expressed in the wonderful introduction by the translator. His words made a deep impression on me. and I may be unconsciously and inadvertently echoing them.

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