Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano pic
Jean Patrick Modiano, known as Patrick Modiano, is a French novelist.

I had never heard of Patrick Modiano until he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014. He is French of Italian descent and not only does he mine his own life for inspiration – usually to do with WWII and the city of Paris, he was born the year the war ended – but his focus is on the reliability, or not, of memory, which is not the same as one’s personal history, or memoir.

Reading Modiano is like walking through a maze: each chapter creates an expectation, but when you turn the corner, it is more of the same, another expectation; and when you get to the end, the centre of the maze, you realise that it’s not the end, just another beginning.

What is this book about? It’s about memory and its fickleness. A writer once said, “Memory is like an oven: you put something in, close the door, wait a while, open the door, and there it is, something else.”

There are three novellas in this short volume, Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin.

The narrator of the first, Afterimage, almost like the writer, is like someone remembering anecdotes that will eventually lead to a point, but one anecdote only leads to another. The veracity of these episodes is given weight by detail: the colour of a hat, the bullet holes in a wall, a list – Modiano loves lists – a footnote containing a minor thought or an address, the sound of leaves in a breeze. And all to do with the narrator’s memory of Francis Jensen, an enigmatic man who the narrator remembers over a period of 20 years.

The first sentence:

I met Francis Jansen when I was nineteen, in the spring of 1964, and today I want to relate the little I know of him;

which starts comfortably enough, but there is a wobble of uncertainty by the end of it: a book usually tends to contain a lot of information a writer knows about a person, not a ‘little’.

By the end of this short story – only 55 pages – you feel as if the short chapters – some very short – could be in any order. There is no obvious narrative ark. Francis Jansen is ‘revealed’ hazily through what the narrator remembers and the people, friends, lovers, and photographs the narrator discovers and the interplay he remembers having with them, which may have happened, or not. It reads like autobiography, and maybe it is, maybe it is not. This is fiction after all.

Mark Polizzotti, the translator, says “Modiano’s narrators seem fatally drawn to individuals who are uncommonly vague about themselves and their situation” and Modiano himself confirms this, “the more obscure and mysterious things remained, the more interested I became in them. I even looked for mystery where there was none.”

Read his biography in his own words here. In true Modiano-fashion he leaves out a lot of information, creating his own mysteries. He doesn’t say, for example, that the interesting reason that he spent his childhood with his grandparents was that his father was deported during the war and his mother was a touring actor.

The second, and title story, has a narrator of 10 years old: Patoche (a diminutive of Patrick), but here the prose is remembered by the adult Patoche who tries to remember and understand the adult world around the boy, and true to Modiano’s love of mystery there is one here. However, what does a 10-year-old boy know of the world of adults. Why are there policemen scouring his home one day when he gets home from school? And where are all the adults. No spoilers here.

“With each new book, Modiano has refined his memorial mode. He is perhaps the most repetitive novelist in world literature: he uses the novel as a serial form, like a screen print,” wrote Adam Thirlwell in The Guardian.

The third, Flowers of Ruin, is the narrator’s shadowy attempt to solve a double suicide and to uncover the history of an acquaintance: Phillipe de Pacheco, commonly known as simply ‘Pachero’; or his name could’ve been Phillipe de Bellune with a tarnished shadow of nobility.

I sat at a sidewalk table of one of the café’s facing the Charlety stadium. I constructed all the hypotheses concerning Phillippe de Pacheco, whose face I didn’t even know. I took notes. Without fully realising it I began writing my first book. It was neither a vocation nor a particular gift that pushed me to write, but quite simply the enigma posed by the man I had no chance of finding again, and by all those questions that would never have an answer.

Behind me, the jukebox was playing an Italian song. The stench of burned tires filled the air. A girl was walking under the leaves of the trees along Boulevard Jourdan. Her blond bangs, cheekbones, and green dress were the only note of freshness on that early August afternoon. Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insoluble mysteries, when life was there, in all its simplicity, beneath the sun?

This sounds like the ending, doesn’t it? But it isn’t; there’s 33 more pages to go!

Like Virginia Woolf, and other modernists, and post modernists, the pleasure is in the action of reading them, not in following a story or remembering it later. Memory has not been explored like this since that other French writer, Marcel Proust (1871-1922). Modiano’s works are short; read one, and tell me what you think.

You can purchase this book in various formats here.


The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano


French writer and 2015 Nobel Prize Laureate, Patrick Moldano.

When you watch a movie it is important to understand, not only that decisions have been made about every thing in every frame: the glare from the wet tarmac, the broken zinnia in the vase of otherwise perfect flowers, or the dreadful yellow hat on the third boy from the right, but that even if something is missed, like the broken flower; if someone has not done his or her job well, or even if simply there was not time or money to re-shoot the scene or re-dress the set – so we will just have to live with the little boy putting his fingers in his ears moments before Eva Marie Saint ‘shoots’ Cary Grant in that now famous blooper from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest – we have to acknowledge that what we see is what is meant, and the person ultimately responsible for this is the director, because he or she has allowed his or her name to be put on it.  Just like a name on the bottom of a painting: the person is taking responsibility for what you see. It says, I did this; what you see is what I want you to see.

What the viewer thinks it ‘means’ is something completely different and has nothing to do with the creator but everything to do with the viewer.

Similarly with a book of fiction: what we read is what the writer wants us to read and the writer employs various techniques – tricks – to make us think – believe – in a particular way. Most writing is about wanting the reader to believe that what is written is true; and just like ‘the suspension of disbelief’ that audiences in the theatre and cinema have to do to become emotionally involved is what they are watching, so too does a reader: a young girl is fleeing her convent school and suffering the dangers of occupied France. This is what the writer wants us to believe is true, but it is only the appearance of truth, and there’s a glorious word for that: verisimilitude; but what is really true is that I’m sitting in a nice chair with good light and a cup of ginger tea.

This particular ability to mentally put ourselves in a description of something (using words, paint, dance, light, stone, sound) made by someone else is a wonderfully human characteristic and is the sole reason we have something called art.

One of the tricks writers use to make us believe that what is written is true is detail, and ironically, unknown detail (“I don’t know what the figures 20998 and 15/24 stand for”) makes that belief stronger: writers, creators, don’t usually use words or numbers that have no known meaning. Why does he tell us this? Because it is true; so goes the logic.

The Search Warrant, or as it was originally published in France, Dora Bruder, is the 1997 novel from this year’s recipient of The Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick Modiano. The story is sparked, so he tells us, from a missing-person ad in the magazine, Paris Soir, dated 31 December 1941, which reads,


Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15, height 1.55m, oval-shaped face, grey-brown eyes, grey sports jacket, maroon pullover, navy blue skirt and hat, brown gym shoes. Address all information to M. and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.”

 As a reader, one accepts this. I can comfortably say that no reader is going to spend the time and effort researching copies of Paris Soir, and in particular the issue from New Years Eve 1941, to verify if this ad is true. It does not matter if it is true or not; in the world that Modiano creates between the covers of this fiction, it is true; we believe this, and to assist us in this belief Modiano includes a footnote (footnotes are also very useful in creating verisimilitude), giving the title of the column in which the ad appeared (“D’hier a aujourd’hui” – “From Day to Day”).

Modiano is obsessed with the past, and in particular, the German occupation of France and the French resistance during World War II even though (or because of it) he was born the year the war ended, 1945. “The plot too is the recognisable one [all Modiano’s plots are markably the same] as a search into the past of a first-person narrator.”*. It is a work (some, like Kawakani, say not a novel) that infuses memoir, (auto) biography, detection, and memory. The reader finds out much more about the narrator (the writer?) than he does about Dora Bruder. The narrator knows the address of the parents, 41 Boulevard Ornano; it is next door to a cinema he visited as a child. He, like Dora, and his father, like Dora’s father, Emile, are French jews and subject to the whims and prejudices of the German occupying forces that involve lists, registers, travel documents, curfews, identification badges, suspicion, and intimidation. There are many questions in this book, almost every chapter begins with one; questions about Dora Bruder that Modiano cannot answer, so he answers with details of others; police reports, timetables, journal entries, and memories of writers of the period; and if one of these writers once slept in the same room as he, or Dora, all the more reason for including it. These glimpses of many lives still add up to the shattering truth of Dora’s; at least one which Modiano wants us to believe.

The autobiographic detail is fascinating – what a surreal time and place to be in where what authorities think you are can cause alienation, deportation, imprisonment, death – and the mystery of Dora pulls you along, but memory as we all know can be treacherous.

(I have a friend, let me call her Gillian. Every time I poach tamarillos I have a vivid memory of Gillian showing me how, in the kitchen of someone else, let me call him Harry. Gillian, however, has no recollection of this, not of ever eating poached tamarillos, before I fed her some on a recent visit, or of ever being in Harry’s kitchen. Did this event happen? I believe it did. She believes it did not. What is true?)

As I’ve said before, somewhere**, fiction is all about truth, but to make it clear, one has to lie about it a little.

On his Italian father’s side he is descended from Sephardic Jews from northern Greece; his mother, was a Flemish actress, “a pretty girl with an arid heart“; Flemish is Modiano’s first language as he was raised by his maternal grandparents: his father, a black-marketeer,  was interned, his mother on tour. His younger brother Rudi died at the age of 9. Moldano wrote a memoir about his childhood and called it Un Pedigree: I couldn’t write an autobiography, that’s why I called it a ‘pedigree’: it’s a book less on what I did than on what others, mainly my parents, did to me.” He is married with two daughters.

 He writes about “the pull of the past, the threat of disappearance, the blurring of moral boundaries, the dark side of the soul“*** ; his art “is the art of speculation“****.

Whatever this book is it is a fascinating way (‘postmodern!’ I hear someone screaming) to tell a story. His novels are only now starting to appear in English, spurred on, no doubt, by the Nobel Prize. Search them out and let me know what you think.


*Kawakani, Akane; 2000, A Self-conscious Art: Patrick Modiano’s Postmodern Fictions, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool

**In a soon to be published autobiographical fiction called Johnny William & the Cameraman.

***Schwartz, Alexandra, The New Yorker Oct 9 2014

****Schwartz, Alexandra, The New Yorker Oct 5 2015