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Friday, February 12, 2016

Suspended Sentences

This is the second year in a row I've read a book by a recent Nobel laureate (I'm one behind, but I'll catch up with you, Svetlana Alexievich). Patrick Modiano certainly wasn't as famous, in North America, as Alice Munro--none of his books had been translated into English before he won the award--but in reading a collection of three novellas, with the umbrella title Suspended Sentences, I found him eminently readable (Nobel winners have been known to be experimental and incomprehensible).

Translated by Mark Polizzotti, the three novellas all deal with memory and Paris. In fact, Polizzoti, in his introduction, writes: "One could easily read these three novellas as a three-part love song to a Paris that no longer exists." I only wish I knew Paris, as it surely would have given me more enjoyment as Modiano's narrators (all three are narrated by someone who is roughly the same age and with the same profession as Modiano) wander the neighborhoods of Paris.

Each of the novellas feature an older man remembering someone out of his youth. The first, "Afterimage," concerns an older photographer that the young narrator befriends. Here we get a lot of metaphors about time passing compared to photographs: "At times, it seems, our memories act much like Polaroids," and "Every time I look at that picture, it hurts. It's like in the morning when you try to recall your dream from the night before, but all  that's left are scraps that dissolve before you can put them together."

That is in the final paragraph of "Afterimage," and as such it points to why I found this the strongest of the three--it' the only one I thought had a good ending. It also is fairly straightforward in matters of chronology and theme. The other two wandered a bit, and I found myself losing my tracking.

The title story is about a man who remembers himself as a young boy living with a menagerie of unusual women. His mother is an actress, and he and his brother are left with them. One of them is a former burlesque dancer, another is called Snow White. It seems that they are part of some sort of crime racket, but I never really understood what was going on. The one line that grabbed me out of this story was "It seems people hang themselves in summer. In the other seasons, they prefer drowning in rivers."

The final story, "Flowers in Ruin,"is very poetic but drifts all over the map. I did like the description of Modiano's stand-in wandering the streets where he spent his youth. While reading I thought about times I've been back to Greenwich Village, where I spent a lot of time twenty to thirty years ago, and how certain restaurants and shops are gone. It's still the same physical space, but it's different. The narrator is fascinated by a murder-suicide that took place in an apartment where he later lived, and then jumps forward to a time when he was with a girlfriend in the 1960's. The story kind of peters out, but does have a great line: "Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insolvable mysteries, when life was there, in all its simplicity, beneath the sun?"

I didn't love this book, but I respected it, and for the lines I've quoted it's worth reading.

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