Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

suspended sentencesFragments of memories…

🙂 🙂 😐

Patrick Modiano was the recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature – almost a guarantee that I will never have read anything of an author, or indeed have heard of him. In my defence, it would appear that not much of his stuff has been translated into English from the original French over the years. Serendipitously (perhaps?), this collection of three novellas came out just around the time the prize was announced.

Although the novellas are supposedly fiction, each has a first person narrator who is a writer, and it feels very much as if there is a strong autobiographical element to them. Each is concerned with memory – a man in his late middle age looking back at a period of his youth.

Afterimages tells the story of the young version of the narrator meeting up with a photographer who subsequently leaves Paris never to be seen again. Suspended Sentences takes us back to the narrator’s childhood, when he and his brother stay for some time in the home of three women who it would appear are involved in some kind of nefarious goings-on – and subsequently disappear from the boys’ lives, never to be seen again. Flowers of Ruin…OK, I’m going to be quite honest here and admit that I lost the will to live about a quarter of the way into this one, and closed the book…never to be seen again.

The writing is good enough for the most part (though see below re lists), the translation by Mark Polizzotti flows well, and Modiano gives a strong sense of place in each of the stories. However, the stories are fragmentary, the timeline shifts back and forwards constantly and there is pretty much a complete lack of continuity within each one. And, whether it really happens or whether it was an effect of my increasing irritation, I don’t know, but that lack of continuity seems to worsen in each of the subsequent novellas. Clearly part of what Modiano is trying to do is highlight the uncertainty of memory, but I’m afraid that leaves it about as interesting as someone telling a lengthy joke and then admitting they’ve forgotten the punchline. Many times he will say something like ‘and I never saw him again’, only to tell us two pages later about another time he meets the same character – one has to assume that we’ve therefore jumped back in time. That can work, of course, but somehow I found I never knew what order events were supposed to have happened in – I think that was intentional but whatever the aim of it was, it failed to do anything other than exasperate me. Then there are the lists. Lists of street names; lists of metro stations on a line; lists of shops on a street – much like this sentence, only longer. Sometimes they are worked into sentences at least; other times they are actually listed – the worst example is a list of 16 shop names, none of which have anything to do with the story.

Patrick Modiano Photo: Catherine Hélie
Patrick Modiano
Photo: Catherine Hélie

The blurb suggests the three novellas are linked and in some way relate to the period of the Occupation during WW2. The links are tenuous at best – the voice of the narrator is similar, and the emphasis on memory (or confusion) runs through them. However, the links to the Occupation pretty much passed me by – so much so that I suspect they don’t exist, since I was actively watching for them. In fact, the stories seem to be looking at the ’50s and ’60s and mourning in some way the passing of that time, or perhaps simply mourning the narrator’s lost youth, although it didn’t seem to be a particularly happy one. The first two are reasonably interesting, in a vague, flimsy, unresolved way – something in the nature of listening to someone recount a recurring dream. But the third one, I’m afraid, is a jumble, full of lots of random fragments of memories with no narrative flow – it made me think of little scraps of material that might have the potential to make a lovely quilt, but need someone to stitch them together first.

I’d like to think that these are not a good example of Modiano’s best work, although we all know prizes don’t always guarantee quality. But I’m afraid that, based on these, I won’t be making strenuous efforts to search out more of his books, and could only recommend these half-heartedly at best.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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36 thoughts on “Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

  1. Hmm. I requested this I think but did not get approved. Either that or by the time I requester, it had gorn. Maybe I should be pleased rather than disappointed. Perhaps I could write a list of all the books I have requested, all the books that I put in my basket for later, all the books in the TBR, all the books in the partially read, and so on. And then of course the list of the things I should be doing instead of listing other lists

    • Shame – you’d probably have enjoyed it! 😉 It does seem to be a bit random which books will be approved, and I think it does depend on how early you request them. I’m still waiting for approval for a couple that I requested after seeing other people’s reviews…

      • I had to wait for AGES before I got Nora Webster, and had quite given up on it. Fortunately, for me, if not for Toibin, the huge pile of TBRs held me of BUYING it till the pile of bought as well as ARCd ones had reduced slightly

    • Yes, I was looking at some of the reviews on Amazon and was relieved to see it isn’t just me – sometimes with these much-praised authors I get a bit apprehensive that I’m missing something…

  2. I have a weird bias against stuff by Nobel Prize winners (except Alice Munro). Maybe it’s my luck and the books I’ve pulled, but I haven’t liked many. Pulitzer winners, on the other hand, have been treating me well.

    As a (kinda sorta) writer, I get nervous when I see someone say “each has a first person narrator who is a writer, and it feels very much as if there is a strong autobiographical element to them”. When writing, there’s a persistent worry that if I shape a narrator/character too much like me, people will assume there’s an autobiographical component. This can make it harder to write, because if people think you’re writing about yourself, they can misinterpret storytelling as “lying”. Also, you don’t want to be too hard on any of the characters since your friends might see themselves in them and so on.

    I find myself writing a lot of male protagonists or pulling in surreal/magical/sci-fi elements to guard against this. Cardinal rule: none of my stories can feature a 28 year old, female, on-again-off-again writer. 😛

    Thanks, as always, for the excellent review! It’s sometimes nice to see an unfavorable review, because it keeps my queue in check and spares me a bad time. 😀

    • I’ve not read much by Nobel Prize winners – generally speaking I’ve never heard of them, and when I look at the books, they don’t appeal much. I’d love to know how they decide…

      Yes, I think it’s true that first-person can make the reader try to make links between the narrator and the author – especially as in this case when the narrator is an ageing white French male writer. The real giveaway was that the narrator in the second story was called Patrick, though – a bit of a hint, I felt! As a reader, I must say that I do get rather tired of authors writing about writing and writers – I know lots of people enjoy that, but I always feel I want writers to tell me about the wider world, not the rather narrow one of being a writer. So I think your rule is a good one, for a lot of reasons! 🙂

  3. I wonder what the stipulations are for being awarded the Nobel prize for literature? Can’t we have a nice jaunty novel that loads of people enjoy reading? Honestly, they seem to want to put people of reading for life!

    • Haha! I know – they seem determined to bring forward lots of authors no-one ever wants to read! And they do love misery, don’t they? I think Solzhenitsyn was the last one I decided to read on the basis that he’d won the Nobel – that was a barrel of laughs too… 😉

  4. FictionFan – So sorry to hear you were disappointed in this. I must say though that it didn’t exactly jump out and call to me, either, which is why I hadn’t read it. I really ought to draw my own conclusions about the book rather than just go by others’ reviews, but a) I trust you; b) you’re not the only one who’s expressed disappointment. Perhaps I’ll keep waiting on this…

    • The blurb made it sound more interesting than it actually was, I’m afraid. But I fear the Nobel in particular doesn’t seem to be a very good guide to enjoyable reading – they seem to give the prize for all sorts of weird reasons that don’t necessarily have much to do with the quality of the work. Though to be fair, Modiano apparently has quite a wide appeal – maybe his novels are better…

    • HahahaHA! I’ll tell you a little secret – the Prof, Lady Fancifull and I were once brilliantly funny (we thought) about an author’s hairdo. Then I discovered the author had come into the blog to read the review… we’ve been trying to be good ever since! We now have a code…

      • I think the code is DON’T TALK ABOUT HAIR. Mind you (plug) re your excellent (see, we do agree sometimes) plug of Toibin’s Nora Webster, which I’m thoroughly immersed in (so far…..till the zombie wielding a sub machine gun appears) I do see that a visit to the hairdresser by the central character is providing MUCH rich material for all sorts of stuff, including class, small-town mentality, how its acceptable for women to look (or not) stages in the grieving process, a barrel of sly reader and central character laughs, and much much more. So Toibin (bald?) doesn’t shy aware from bad hair observations.

        Mind you, now you have started me thinking about THAT review again. I can see THAT author photo in my mind’s eye, and am already started to titter. I don’t think I dare look at it though, I would be very very tempted to read Prof, your, and my brilliant funny (we think) exchanges, and then imagine the embarrassment of the author visiting, so my titter gets replaced by shameful roars, head hanging over our BAD BEHAVIOUR whilst still BADLY being amused

        • Better a Toibin than a Trump as hairdos go, I feel…

          The thing is, his other book is on the TBR so one day that photo may well appear again – will any of us be able to resist? I feel the effort of being good may well lead to spontaneous combustion… maybe I’ll wait till you two are on your hols and sneak the review in while nobody’s looking…

  5. The list thing does seem to be a bit of a fashion in French writing at the moment though – I’ve come across it in quite a few novels and stories now, but I hesitated to generalise it.
    I don’t think you’ve started with his best work. Some of his novels are much better read – even fun, certainly mysterious. Not sure how much has been translated into English though.

    • How odd! I found it an entirely strange concept to suddenly stop the narrative to list all the metro stations or all the shop names.

      Yes, I think it may be a pity that this came out just as he won the prize – it will probably be the first introduction to him for a lot of people. Perhaps some of his better novels will be translated now though…

  6. Ah yes, a writer is supposed to provide a sense of the fragmentation without losing the reader. I haven’t read anything by this author, either. I’m not sure I will. 😀 Definitely not this one…Thank you for throwing yourself on the grenade to save the rest of us. (thought I’d include a war reference that was far too obvious to miss). Cheers!

    • I really did try to pay attention, you know – and they were only short. But the impulse to do something – anything – else became rather irresistible after a while… 😉

      Haha! Thanks for that! I did feel myself that a Nazi Occupation ought to be reasonably easy to spot…

    • I’m not at all convinced there was much there to glean, but maybe they would be more meaningful to people who’ve read his other stuff. Which isn’t something I really intend to put to the test… 😉

  7. Ooo, that would be frustrating. This one should probably be shredded a bit or so. But isn’t the title a good title? At least, that was on. It’s worst, you see, when you have an awful book(s) and an awful title. That’s horrid. But at least, his title was nice.

  8. So sounds like something I would not read. Noble Prize winner or not. HOpe the translation was at least good – I understand it can make a difference? However, I know nothing of it – only what I’ve heard.

    • The translation seemed good to me, but I always end up wondering with translations how you can be sure if the translator got over what the author meant. It’s one of the things that puts me off reading a lot of non-English books…

      • I recall this issue when I read Arturo Perez-Reverte — Club Dumas, Ninth Gate, Fencing Master, etc. I always wondered. Though the translation appeared to convey nuance, so?

        • It did in this one, but I did wonder if some of the vagueness might have been caused by the translation, though I didn’t think it was. I’d love to be able to read properly in French, but I’m afraid what little French I once knew is disappearing rapidly…

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