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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Patrick Modiano writes thoughtful novellas

In his collection of three novellas, last year’s Nobel Prize Winner Patrick Modiano gives his readers a hauntingly beautiful reminder of the power and resonance memory has on our daily lives. Though the three novellas “Afterimage,” “Suspended Sentences” and “Flowers of Ruin” tell three different narratives, they all feel connected not only because of their common location of pre- and post-occupation Paris or their narrator, different versions of Modiano himself, but because they all center themselves as an homage to how much nostalgia can affect our lives.

If I had to pick a least favorite out of the novellas it would probably be “Afterimage,” however that is more due to the strengths of the other two, as “Afterimage”is still an incredibly moving work in its own right. Its story is one in which a middle-aged man suddenly encounters a relic from his forgotten past, a photo on a stamp of himself with his girlfriend from many years ago, taken by a photographer named Francis Jansen.

The man then continues to flash back to the summer he spent indexing the photographs of this Jansen and the time he spent with him doing so. While the premise of the plot seems simple and boring enough, it is. However, the plot is not the point of this novella rather it is the narrator coming to terms with how someone can simply slip out of our lives completely, only to then come roaring back many years later without so much aid as a stamp. This is a phenomenon. This something we have all dealt with in our lives, and it is this commonality that Modiano not only recognizes but embraces in “Afterimage.”

The second novella, “Suspended Sentences,” was my personal favorite of the bunch. This one tells a much different story, as it is set in a small town outside of a Paris on the cusp of occupation. Its narrator is a small boy who has recently moved in with his brother to a new home. They were sent there by their parents to live with an elusive woman named Annie, her mother and a curious ex-circus performer name Hélène, presumably due to France’s fast approaching occupation.

Throughout the book the boy and his little brother adapt to their new school, home, friends and every other factor that make up their new home. In describing this process. Modiano captures the wonderful quality that only children have to process change as whimsical and adventurous as opposed to a loss and it is sure to provoke a sense of nostalgia both happy and sad in the reader similarly to Patoche and his brother.

Modiano leaves the reader with the final novella “Flowers of Ruin,” and while it is not the most beautiful of the three, it is the most interesting. In this novella, Modiano is at his most postmodern in that he offers two narratives within the novella that constantly interweave and even crash into one another. The first is simply an anonymous man experiencing life in Paris. However, he soon becomes enraptured by the story of a gripping and mysterious double suicide between a young couple that happened long ago and long faded into Paris’s subconscious.

Throughout the main narrative, Modiano then splices in accounts of that young couple’s fateful night in which they decide to take each other's lives to form this second narrative. Through the narrator’s investigation, he soon realized he was becoming more tied to the fateful event than he ever thought possible. This book grapples with a similar phenomenon as “Afterimage” in which something from the past suddenly creeps into our present daily lives without warning. This time, however,  it is something more abstract such as words, stories, images, experiences all suddenly manifesting themselves in the mind of the main narrator and it is the narrator who must find a way to sort them out.

Overall, “Suspended Sentences” is a brilliant collection of three novellas and they prove that Patrick Modiano is the reigning recipient for the Nobel Prize in literature for a reason. He is a masterful writer, storyteller and philosopher all rolled into one and “Suspended Sentences”confirms it.

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