When Patrick Modiano’s Nobel Prize for Literature was announced in October, none of his books were in print in English. Only a fraction of his books had been translated at all over the past few decades: Ring Roads and Villa Triste (which I’ve previously discussed here) were translated in the 1970s. Yale University Press was the first, and apparently the only, English-language publisher to jump on the Nobel bandwagon, seeing an opportunity for new translations. Suspended Sentences, a collection of three novellas translated by Mark Polizotti, was published in November – an apparently rapidly produced translation that nonetheless is better than its 1970s predecessors.
Suspended Sentences is a collection of three slightly more recent novellas, which are Modiano’s narrative form of choice: Afterimage (Chien de printemps, 1993), Suspended Sentences (Reminse de peine, 1988), and Flowers of Ruin (Fleurs de ruine, 1991). Afterimage describes the friendship between the young narrator and a photographer, Francis Jansen. The narrator becomes obsessed with Jansen’s photographs, which he considers to be brilliant, and frantically tries to catalogue them, to Jansen’s slight bemusement. In Suspended Sentences, a young boy is raised by members of the infamous Rue Lauriston gang in Nazi-occupied France, though he is unable to understand what is happening around him until the day they are all rounded up and he is left in an empty house. Flowers of Ruin, finally, is the least powerful of the three, and tells the story of the double suicide of a young couple which is somehow connected to a mysterious man who has stolen the identity of a former Dachau prisoner.
Their thematic similarity is presumably what inspired both publisher and translator to publish these three works in one collection: all three works exhibit a fascination with the photographical image, a sentimental yearning for France in the 1960s, and a young male narrator who seems to be adrift in the world. Modiano’s language is descriptive even though it is sparse: as the brevity of these works suggests, he does not use a word too many. The scenes he describes, divided into chapters sometimes no more than a page in length, always seem to be at one remove from the narrator, and thus even more distant and ungraspable for the reader. This becomes most visible, and quite problematic, in Flowers of Ruin. Here the narrator drifts so fluidly from one scene, one memory, to the other that it is difficult for the reader to get a grasp on the story, tragic though the narrative may be.
In a collection that seems to be intended to both highlight and introduce the work of this suddenly famous author to a wider English-speaking audience, it would perhaps have been better to have included his novella Ring Roads rather than Flowers of Ruin as the third part of the collection. That particular work is easier to follow and deals with similar themes of youth versus adulthood, in a similar language, but with a more striking treatment of the topics of racism and anti-Semitism in pre-war France.
These themes, however, sound perhaps too familiar to those who know a few more of Modiano’s novellas. Both Ring Roads and Villa Triste deal with very similar themes, although in these two works the narrator’s connection to his father is more central to the story. After having read more than three of Modiano’s works, the similarities in both language and subject matter overwhelm the differences: Modiano seems to be writing the same work over and over. For a reader who dislikes wordiness and loves the sense of tragic reminiscence that these works exude, this may be positive. For someone who is looking for variation, this bundle is precisely enough Modiano.
‘Suspended Sentences’ is available to buy from most bookstores, RRP £12.99.