Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, Suspended Sentences; Three Novellas (New Haven: Yale, 2014), 213pp.
When the French novelist Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, it was "for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation." The three novellas that comprise this book were originally published separately in France from 1988 to 1993, and yet it's fitting for them to be bound in one volume since they continue Modiano's exploration of the power of memory to shape our identities.
The three stories evoke a nostalgic post-war Paris, but one with a palpable sense of dis-ease. Memory plays tricks on us. It can be murky and painful. In "Afterimage," a young man catalogs the disorganized photographs of a friend in order to preserve memories. In "Suspended Sentences," a man recalls his childhood memories as "tangible proof that it wasn't all in your head." And in "Flowers of Ruin," the narrator tries to reconstruct a double suicide.
Memory is mysterious. There are things you can't forget, even if you try, like a single sentence "etched in your mind forever." Other memories, no matter how important, remain dream-like and difficult to recall, like the Parisian city scape that has all changed from childhood days. Sometimes a cherished physical object, like a photograph or an old cigarette case, are reassuring reminders of a former life.
Aspects of Modiano's fiction are based on his own life, like the nooks and crannies of Paris. In all three stories the narrator is a writer. One incident replays his Jewish father's real-life arrest in Nazi-occupied France. One of the protagonists is named Patrick. And so fiction and reality merge in our memories to shape our identities.