Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 4, 2015

Suspended Sentences, by Patrick Modiano, translated by Mark Polizzotti

Suspended SentencesSuspended Sentences is a trio of linked novellas by Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano, translated by Mark Polizzetti and published by Yale University Press late in 2014.  To the best of my knowledge it’s the first of Modiano’s work to be made available in English here in Australia; no doubt there will soon be more.  I am very lucky to have been able to read this book so soon after it became available in Australia – my wonderful library got it in for me within a week of me asking for it to be purchased for their collection! Thank you, Kingston Library:)

One of my reading goals is to eventually read all the Nobel winners (the novelists, that is) and Modiano’s win last year was especially interesting to me because of the citation:

 “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation” (Source: Wikipedia)

This is perhaps because the Surrender of the French, the Occupation and the accompanying pro-Nazi Vichy regime has always fascinated me, because it seems incomprehensible.  The French experience is quite different to other countries over-run by the Germans and a marked contrast to their previous military and political history. I am intrigued by how they reconcile this shameful aspect of their past, and how/if it shapes contemporary attitudes and literature.

All countries seem to have some shameful events in their histories, and there are differences in how we deal with it.   S.A. Jones, in her novel Isabelle of the Moon and Stars, (see my review) raises the issue of how Germany remembers the shameful history of the Holocaust compared to the Czech Republic.  Here in Australia even the acknowledgement of the dispossession of the indigenous people is contentious, whereas New Zealand dealt with that issue more than a century ago with the Treaty of Waitangi.  In the US the shame of slavery dominates over the shame of indigenous dispossession, and in the UK, the shame of colonisation is still shaping attitudes long after the end of Empire, if Anglo-Indian and Anglo-African literature is anything to go by.

Modiano’s three novellas, shaped by shadowy memories of Occupation, exude a discomfited nostalgia for a world that no longer exists.  Originally published separately, the stories form a cohesive whole through the narrator’s voice and the presence of some recurring characters.  All three are permeated by a sense of loss.   The novellas are unmistakeably Parisian, but they are located in a Paris that is gone, a city which, in ‘Flowers of Ruin’ seems now to offer more to tourists than to its residents.  Watching a tour bus, the narrator observes that

The Jardins de Luxembourg was just one stop and they had all of Paris to visit.  I wanted to follow them on that glorious morning, that harbinger of spring, and be just a simple tourist.  No doubt I would have rediscovered a city I had lost, and through its avenues, the feeling I’d once had of being light and carefree.  (p.212-3)

He remembers the days preceding his departure from Paris for Vienna, and ‘liberating’ a small dog from its cage in a kennel in Avenue d’Italie.

I sat down with him at a sidewalk café table.  It was June.  They hadn’t yet dug the foundations for the périphérique, which gives such a feeling of enclosure.  Back then, the gates of Paris were all in vanishing perspectives; the city gradually loosened its grip and faded into barren lots.  And one could still believe that adventure lay right around every street corner. (p. 213) 

(Though perhaps not quite the same, LOL, I can certainly relate to this feeling of entrapment by the périphérique).  I have vivid memories of being stuck in it in peak hour when trying to return a hire car to the airport.  We only just caught our flight in time despite having left the Loire Valley with hours to spare, which taught us a valuable lesson.  Do not ever drive in Paris.  Take the train!)

Modiano’s underlay of old Paris also holds memories of elusive people.  The narrator thinks he sees the false Pacheco leading the tour, a man with eyes that so were so blue they were empty.  Pacheco haunts his recollections because he is tied up in some way with a double suicide that took place decades ago in 1933; people and events swirl around in the fog of his memory but nothing is resolved.

This is also true of the other two stories.  In ‘Afterimage’, the un-named narrator reflects on his attempts to engage with the photographer Jansen.  They had met in 1964 when aged 19, and he was enthralled by Jansen’s photographs documenting a Parisian life that no longer existed, even then.  He spends long hours cataloguing these carelessly stored photos because he thinks that Jansen, a student of Robert Capa, is a major artist and that the photos have historic value.  But Jansen is indifferent to his own work, and abandons Paris for elsewhere, leaving the narrator with only a catalogue of photos that no longer exist and tantalising image-memories of people whose identity he does not and cannot ever know.

The sense of a mysterious unacknowledged past is even stronger in ‘Suspended Sentences’.  In this story the narrator remembers his childhood during the Occupation.  It has, according to the brief introduction by Polizzotti, biographical correspondences with Modiano’s own life, for both narrator and author were brought up in the absence of parents.  In the novella, the narrator tries to make sense of strange events but his personal history remains opaque because all traces of the ‘gang’ that took care of him seems to have vanished.  Were they crooks, or were they collaborators?  He does not, and cannot ever know.

For many years Australians hid any trace of ‘the convict stain’ in their family history, and it seems that in France, as in Germany, there are also ominous silences and dead or misleading trails.  I’ll be interested to read more of Modiano’s work, but next time, I want to read a full length novel.

Update 5/2/15 (thanks to Kim for these reminders) Stu at Winston’s Dad was among the first to review Modiano’s work in English –  he read it before the Nobel announcement – and you can read his review of the novel The Search Warrant: Dora Bruder on his blog.   (Needless to say this one is now on order for me from Fishpond, now that it’s available in Australia.  Review in due course.)

Becky at Becky’s Books reviewed it too.

Author: Patrick Modiano
Title: Suspended Sentences
Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti
Publisher: Yale University Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780300198058
Source: Kingston Library


Fishpond: Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)


  1. I was surprised at the French war cemeteries; only for WW1 until I worked out the reason.



    • it’s ironic, that, when you consider how much military history tourism there is in France.


  2. I’m on a book-buying ban at the mo, but wonder if I can persuade my library to add this to their collection too. I’m attracted to that sense of loss and shadowy memories you’ve described in your review.


    • LOL I think book-buying bans and other NY resolutions are a January, post Xmas thing. I’m sure libraries understand that!
      He is a wonderful writer, there is a gentleness about his prose that is very attractive.


  3. Is it the first? I was sure The Search Warrant predates this.


    • You are right! I just checked Fishpond (Australian-owned alternative to Book Depository a.k.a. Amazon) and it’s there, published 2009. But it wasn’t, last time I looked so maybe it’s just been reissued. Anyway, it’s a novel, so it’s going onto my wishlist:)
      PS Yes, I checked, it was republished after his win.


      • I vaguely recall reading a review of it on Stu’s blog. And from my Amazon wishlist I see that I added it last October.


        • Yes, again you are right. But Stu read it on his Kindle, and on principle I will only buy something from Amazon if there really is no alternative. (As you can see from the comments on Stu’s review, I checked at the time and a print copy wasn’t available here. (‘Here’ is the missing word in my comments about this in the review and I will add it to clarify). The alternative that worked for me was to put in a request at the library and get the print version from Yale.
          LOL that review was written with an 8 week Silky Terrier puppy nosing about and distracting me, I’m surprised it makes sense at all, never mind having my facts right! We’ve had her since Sunday and today (Thursday) is the first day that she’s left me in peace for more then 10 minutes to read my email in the library.


          • I don’t support Amazon either, but do buy the odd Kindle edition from them. I only use the wish list to compile a list of books to buy elsewhere. For past 18 months all my print books have come from bricks’n’mortar stores — mainly Daunt, Waterstone’s, Foyles and charity shops.

            And how delightful to hear you have a new puppy! I bet she’s gorgeous! x


            • Thanks for mention strange just got email to day a copy of this is waiting at library for me to read .I did notice even the kindle version of search warrant has disappeared now I downloaded as was quickest at time before nobel was announced and had heard his name mentioned and was keen to try him Maclehose have sign up for a number of his books three I think after frankfurters book fair I did wonder if christopher had brought him to harvil when he was there


              • I think that Modiano will be a popular Nobel winner, amongst readers of LitFic anyway. Winners like Herta Muller and Jelenek are deserving, but are hard work to read IMO.
                Interesting that Le Clezio, also ‘easy to read’ is French as well. I love his books.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Me too I think he maybe hasn’t had platform before to sell in English he maybe is bit subtle for us in one way


            • I don’t know what I’d do if we didn’t have Fishpond here. I live in fear of the day that the behemoth takes it over too. Principle only takes one so far, if one absolutely must have the book.
              Over here there is cautious optimism from the surviving B&M bookshops that the eBook has reached its peak – none of the shops I regularly patronise have gone out of business (Readings, Benn’s Books, Odyssey Books, Embiggen Books and Kidna Books plus Readers Feast when I’m in town) but more and more of the second-hand bookshops have gone online only. The service from the ones I’ve used is great, but it does mean you lose that serendipity.
              And lately I’m finding that my favourite OpShops are just offering popular fiction *sigh*

              Amber is gorgeous. I am besotted.


  4. […] the narrator in ‘Afterimage‘ who is haunted by tantalising image-memories of people whose identity he does not and […]


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