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Patrick Modiano. Master of transience

October 26, 2015

Paris Nocturne

Since picking up Suspended Sentences, a collection of three of Patrick Modiano’s novellas, earlier this year and interviewing its translator Mark Polizzotti, I have become intrigued by Modiano’s fascinating writing style. When two more of his novellas Paris Nocturne, translated by Phoebe Weston-Evans, and After the Circus, translated by Mark Polizzotti, became available for review I couldn’t wait to read them.

Suspended sentences consists of three novellas. Suspended Sentences, is a story about a group of shady adults, without doubt associated with the criminal underworld, who are given the task of looking after two brothers by mysteriously absent parents. The novella shifts between past and present as the man revisits and reminisces about places he once knew. A trope that occurs frequently in these books under review. Afterimage concerns a young man who meets a photographer who once knew Robert Capra, but plans to abandon his work to leave France. The young man offers to catalogue the photographer’s work in order, not so much to preserve the photographs, but the photographer, who the young man feels will disappear without trace. In Flowers of Ruin the narrative shifts between the protagonist considering a double suicide of an engineer and his wife in the early 1930’s and a man who may have been a Nazi collaborator.

In Paris Nocturne a teenage boy is the victim of a car accident. The woman driving it is someone he is convinced he has met before. In something that resembles a spy novel, he is whisked off to a hospital and sedated, but then compensated generously for the accident with an envelope full of money. The boy seems to shift and slip between past and present as he sets off in pursuit of the mysterious woman in a way that becomes very much like being in the mind of a stalker; so that although the boy initially appears to be a victim, there are times where his actions and thoughts seem quite sinister. A classic case of the unreliable narrator.

After the Circus

After the Circus is a novella is set in the 1960s and follows the relationship of a young man who lies about his age, because he is still classed as a minor by French law. He meets a woman after a very Kafkaesque interview at a police station and embarks on an affair. The woman seems to exist by living on her wits, eventually involving the young man in what appears to be some very shady dealings.

To read Modiano is to enter into a meditative state, largely due to the unique rhythm of his work which adds to the sense of otherworldliness along with his equally strange narratives. Modiano has taken the concept of ‘write about what you know’ and teased it out until the starting material becomes so thin as to be transparent and it is difficult to tell truth from fiction. The same goes for the settings in which the stories take place. In the tradition of the landscape artists who tweaked the landscape and added features to create something captivating, so Modiano alters Paris in a most intriguing way, both in a sense of space and time. Places he describes no longer exist, but his writing makes you believe they still have substance in the still rapidly transforming Paris topography. The novella Suspended Sentences certainly plays with this concept and Mark Polizzotti, on attempting to find the places Modiano described, discovered they had changed considerably.

Modiano uses plain language and his writing is spare, as if ink is a precious commodity. Yet he manages to convey a sense of place and emotion that makes his writing something to be studied by anyone who wants to craft clean prose, but at the same time provide the reader with a story that leaves them with an impression of a narrative full of the requisite detail.

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The subject material is delightfully odd. All his characters feel as if one strong breeze would blow them away. There is the sense in all of the stories in this review of being crime fiction, or a noir thriller, but the slippery nature of the narrative makes the genre difficult to pin down. All the characters appear to live on the outside of society as if they are hardly present, to the point of being almost invisible if it were not for their interactions with other people. They do not belong and you feel that whatever relationships they have will eventually slip away and out of reach. The father is a frequently recurring character; usually a shadowy figure living an obscure and shady existence and not easily accessible to his offspring. There is the kind of tension and not belonging sensed in LeCarre’s Magnus Pym in The Perfect Spy and the father of Alison Moore’s Futh from The Lighthouse, barely living within the boundaries of the real world and creating an unnatural discomfort and dislocation in their children. In Modiano’s case this strange relationship may well be because Modiano’s Jewish father was rounded up in the Occupation only to be released because he was a black marketer with connections to the Gestapo.

There is a great deal in Patrick Modiano’s compact novellas and understated writing, to make them not only a good read, but also an important source of study for any writer and therefore certainly something to experience more than once.

All three books were made available to me courtesy of Yale University press via NetGalley.

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