Suspended Sentences is a book of three novellas, written by Paul Modiano and translated into English by Mark Polizzotti.
Modiano is a French writer who in 2014 was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. This book was my first exposure to this gifted writer with the exception of watching the film Lacombe Lucien in 1974 directed by Louis Malle. Modiano co-wrote the screenplay. At the time, frankly, I had no idea who Paul Modiano was.
The stories are set in Paris in a time gone by. Many of the buildings referred and streets referred to have been razed to make room for something else. This contributes to the dreaminess of the vision we are given of the mis-en-scene.
Modiano writes in an off handed style that is vague in its presentation. These stories are imperfect memories seen through a soft focused lens with a backward glance through time that seems to have a faded to a yellowish color not unlike sepia. It is an attempt to see into the past and is therefore an afterimage of the past and just as imprecise. In fact the first story is entitled, Afterimage. These stories or novels, were published separately over a period of five years. But they have the feeling of part of a whole. They fit well together. The other two books are, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin.
The original title of the second story was Remise de peine. The literal translation of this phrase is a stay of sentence, but also it means a deferral of pain. The translator chose well the title Suspended Sentences as it seems to evoke both these attributes. A further resonance for me is the idea of written sentences literally hanging in midair, suspended so to say, which very much captures the style in which Modiano writes.
Here is an example of a suspended sentence that I particularly liked:
“Certain objects disappear from your life at the first lapse of attention, but the cigarette case has remained. I knew it would always be in reach in a night stand drawer, on a shelf in a clothes closet at the back of a desk, in the inner pocket of a jacket. I was so sure of its presence that I usually forgot about it. Except when I was feeling down. Then I would ponder it from every angle. It was the only object that bore witness to a period in my life that I couldn’t talk to anyone about, and whose very reality I sometimes doubted.”
I know exactly where he is coming from here as I have several objects I feel the same way about, almost talisman like in their quality in that they ground me to the earth and hold me fast to reality when in fact most of my life has been a blur.
My favorite story of the three is in fact Suspended Sentences. Who could not fall in love and become enchanted by the first sentences of the novel? “It was in the days when theater companies toured not just France, Switzerland, and Belgium, but also North Africa. I was ten years old. My mother had gone on the road for a play, and my brother and I were living with friends of hers, just outside of Paris.”
Hooked yet? I was.