🙂 🙂 😐
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.
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.