By Yung-Hsiang Kao / Japan News Staff WriterSuspended Sentences
By Patrick Modiano
Translated by Mark Polizzotti
Yale University Press, 213pp
While the Nobel Peace Prize generally is awarded to a recognizable figure, the Nobel Prize in Literature has frequently gone to writers unknown to many in the English-speaking world.
Some recent winners such as Alice Munro, Harold Pinter, Gunter Grass and Toni Morrison are exceptions, but most years, a writer such as Patrick Modiano is named the laureate.
It’s a pity Modiano, born in 1945 with his first novel published in 1968, wasn’t better known before winning the prize last year, perhaps because few of his works have been translated into English. The Frenchman deserves to be more widely read in English, as this new novella collection reveals.
Thanks to the Nobel, “Suspended Sentences” was released earlier than scheduled so more people can experience these Modiano works for the first time in English. The translations of the three novellas by Mark Polizzotti are first-rate, conveying Modiano’s original voice.
The first work in the book is “Afterimage,” originally published in 1993 as “Chien de printemps” (literally, dog of spring). “Afterimage” as a title is spot-on, as the story centers on the narrator reminiscing about a photographer he met 30 years earlier. Modiano pulls the reader in with short episodes written in efficient sentences, over a page or two on average. This briskness helps Modiano easily shift the reader between the narrator’s present-day, remembrance and dream worlds.
Modiano’s style brings to mind alternatively Kazuo Ishiguro or Milan Kundera, yet is different from either novelist: “Numbness and amnesia gradually overcame me, like sleep on the day when I was hit by a van and they pressed an ether-soaked pad over my face.”
The second work gives its title to the collection, originally published in 1988 as “Remise de peine” (literally, “a stay of sentence,” but also “a deferral of pain”). This is the earliest work of the three, and Modiano uses more dialogue and descriptions of settings than in the other two novellas. The voice is still in the first person, but of a man looking back to his time as a 10-year-old: “The empty street in the moonlight, the silence, and the feeling that came over us of having left home for good gradually made us slow our steps.”
There is wonderment, rather than the supposed surety of middle age looking back at youth as in “Afterimage.” There are also many more characters, one of whom the narrator calls Snow White based on her appearance.
Rounding out the book is “Flowers of Ruin,” with the title literally translated from the original published in 1991. The first-person narrator starts off with some observations (“On the sidewalk, dead leaves. Or burned pages”) on the way to revisiting the paths taken by a couple who commit double suicide.
Yet this sudden plunge into darkness becomes a way for the narrator to revisit certain aspects of his past: “When I was twenty, I would feel relieved when I passed from the Left Bank to the Right Bank of the Seine, crossing via the Pont des Arts. … Today I wonder what I could have been fleeing by crossing over the Pont des Arts.”
All these novellas are tinged with reflection, the idea of an unreliable memory, bordering on regret. There is a subtlety to Modiano’s craft so that the reader isn’t aware of how the narrative is leading the reader through the story.
When the narrator in “Afterimage” says he wants to be a writer, the photographer tells him it’s impossible to “create silence with words.” It’s the silent magic of Modiano that somehow manages to do so.
Where to read
In a quiet room with a warm drink or while sitting up in bed before sleep.