For some of us, in our youth, French fiction was epitomized by Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Domain), a slim novel of loss and yearning that became something of a craze, particularly among teenagers. The fact that the author, whose real name was Henri Alban, was killed in action in 1914 at the age of twenty-seven surely enhanced the novel’s appeal to self-dramatizing romantics (and who wasn’t back then?). At first glance, Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences owes nothing at all to Fournier’s reverie. The three novellas that make up this volume are more obviously reminiscent of French existentialist literature and French cinema (Modiano wrote the screenplay for Louis Malle’s 1974 film Lacombe Lucien). Yet the veil of loss and of longing that Modiano drapes over the recollections of his narrator – who is also called Patrick — may seem oddly familiar to readers who haven’t thought of Alain-Fournier in decades. There is even a derelict château, as redolent of romance as it is in Le Grand Meaulnes, if less magical. And there is memory, above all memory.
“I met Francis Jansen when I was nineteen, in the spring of 1964…” the first novella, “Afterimage,” begins. In a Paris café, Patrick and a girlfriend attract the attention of Jansen, an American photographer, who briefly uses them as models for a magazine article on Paris youth. Jansen, we soon learn, arrived in Paris in 1938 and is now poised to leave. In his studio hang two photographs: one of Jansen with his friend Robert Capa in Berlin in 1945 “sitting side by side in a shattered bathtub among some ruins” and one of a woman named Colette Laurent. Patrick offers to catalogue the rest. “I had taken on this job because I refused to accept that people and things could disappear without a trace,” he explains as he organizes the chaotic accumulation, “How could anyone resign himself to that?” So begins Patrick’s mapping of Paris as Jansen captured it (“…326. Wall, Rue Gasnier-Guy 327. Steps on Rue Lauzin…”) and his vexed search for Jansen’s vanished subjects. “I have the illusion that all I’d need do is return to those faraway neighborhoods to find the people I’ve lost,” Patrick admits. Colette Laurent, for example, comes in and out of focus as a woman, perhaps fugitive, encountered in childhood.
The quest is labyrinthine. Memories surface as photographic images, chance encounters or dramatic episodes, one possibly connected to another by coincidence and across time. All of which sounds unreadable. But Modiano’s calm, lucid style (in Mark Polizzotti’s fine translation) is both hypnotic and moving. Each twist and turn, instead of prompting impatience, deepens our compassion for a narrator who is straining to retrieve what is lost in a city that seems to shift before his eyes. Of Jansen’s postwar Paris scenes, Patrick observes, “He was seeking a lost innocence and setting made for enjoyment and ease, but where one could never be happy again.”
The shadow of the Nazi Occupation falls on deserted houses. And on Patrick’s life. In the second novella, “Suspended Sentences,” which returns to his childhood, we catch a glimpse of Patrick’s absent parents and learn of his father’s arrest by the Gestapo. Someone had him released. Was it one of the Lauriston gang whose members “…slowly got sucked into the system: from black marketeering, they’d moved into doing the police’s dirty work for the Germans”? And are the women who later care for Patrick and his brother also criminals? Seen through a child’s eyes, the adult world acquires a sinister glamour. “We sometimes saw him arrive at the wheel of his American car,” Patrick recalls of the exotic Roger Vincent, “It stopped in front of the house like a speedboat with its motor cut off…” The children are taken for a drive. “We glided on slack water. I couldn’t hear the sound of the motor.” Tension pervades the becalmed silence. And heartbreak is palpable in this, the most dramatically conventional of the novellas, as Modiano refers fleetingly to the death of Patrick’s brother and the disappearance of his trusted adults. “Annie, Little Helene, and Roger Vincent had certainly wound up in jail,” he later realizes, “I had lost my brother. The thread had snapped – a gossamer strand.”
The third novella, “Flowers of Ruin,” returns us to the present, still saturated with the past. A news story of a double suicide overlaps, by sheerest coincidence, with an elusive acquaintance called Pacheco, another man with whom Patrick becomes fascinated. “Without full realizing it, I began writing my first book,” he recalls, “It was neither a vocation nor a particular gift that pushed me to write, but quite simply the enigma posed by a man I had no chance of finding again, and by all those questions that would never have an answer.”