Review: Suspended Sentences

Publié le par Mémoires de Guerre

German troops occupy Paris in 1940: the dominant Modiano motif

German troops occupy Paris in 1940: the dominant Modiano motif

By Patrick Modiano(trans: Mark Polizzotti)

Yale/Margellos £12.99

The literary event of 2014 was the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Patrick Modiano, about whom little was known in the UK.

Modiano, from a French Sephardi family, was born in a Paris suburb in 1945. In 1968, still in his early twenties, he published his first novel, La Place de l'étoile, a wartime novel about a Jewish collaborator. In 1973, he co-wrote the screenplay of Louis Malle's film, Lacombe, Lucien, about a French boy who joins a pro-Vichy military force opposed to the Resistance.

These early works announced one of his central themes: the dark, French side of the Second-World-War German occupation. He has since written almost 30 books. Only a few have been translated into English.

The stories slip through past (or several pasts) and present

Suspended Sentences is made up of three novellas originally published separately. Each has the same voice, the same distinctive atmosphere and the same haunting quality.

Each story, too, is told in the first person. Each narrator looks back on a life-changing encounter, years before, with a fascinating individual. But the more Modiano's seekers try to find out about these individuals, the more elusive their quarry becomes. There are clear echoes of Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby and W G Sebald's masterpiece, Austerlitz.

There is no shortage of drama: a photographer disappears without trace, two young brothers come across a gang and, finally, a young couple are found shot dead: it seems like suicide, but the plot thickens.

There is suspense and intrigue but the novellas are almost anti-thrillers - a world away from Simenon or Raymond Chandler. The plot is a kind of line on which to hang a set of different preoccupations about time, identity and how mysterious other people are.

There is also something vertiginous about these stories. You never quite know where (or when) the events are taking place, even though the setting is Paris. They slip through time, between past and present, perhaps several pasts, set 10 or 20 years apart.

At the heart of Modiano's fiction - again echoing Sebald - there is a constant sense of uncertainty. And this is strange and unsettling because Modiano can sometimes be very specific about when and where the action is taking place. He gives a precise address, a clear detail, a specific date, and then suddenly everything becomes hazy again. He moves constantly between the tangible and the elusive. He tells you something about a character and then everything becomes "vague" or "mysterious" leaving just one single, unifying event: the German occupation.

This may sound grim; it is not. There are few modern writers as pleasurable or interesting to read. Modiano is one of the great writers of our time.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

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