Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas

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Beautifully translated from Modiano’s French by Mark Polizzotti. I was absolutely crushed by the first novella, Afterimage (original: Chien de printemps) and read it again as soon as I’d finished it. It’s the story of a Parisian teenager who meets a fictional photographer (Francis Jansen) in the spring of 1964 and volunteers to catalog his photos for him.

“On the morning we met, I remember asking him, out of politeness, what he considered the best kind of camera. He shrugged his shoulders and admitted that, all things considered, he preferred those small black plastic cameras you can buy in toy stores, the kind that squirt water when you press the trigger.”

This fictional photographer is grounded in reality by allusions to friends that did exist, Robert Capa (Spanish Civil War photographer & founder of Magnun), Colette Laurent (model and actress photographed by Capa, who notes about her that “Colette Laurent is desperately unhappy. Her life is superficial, artificial on the surface and holds none of the good things except the material ones.”)

Nearly 30 years later, the narrator (the teenage archivist all grown up and become an author) runs across photos from that spring, decides to write a book about Jansen. 15 years prior, he had made the first attempt at research, unearthing a calling card he got from one of Jansen’s friends at his farewell party. He decides to travel to the village where the friend’s house was to inquire further, “giddy at the thought of having found a purpose” to his day.

Much of the material comes from his own “memory”… the last day Jansen takes him to lunch and points out several of his historical markers around Paris (first house he stayed in, the Magnum office, etc.). He explains his shooting process that you must “approach things gently and quietly or they pull away.”

The quality Jansen possessed in his art and in his life, “so precious but so hard to acquire: keeping silent.” In the penultimate section, the narrator sits on a bench in a the gardens, overcome by drowsiness, hearing Jansen’s warning about falling into black holes.

“I was going to disappear in this garden, amid the Easter Monday crowds. I was losing my memory and couldn’t understand French anymore, as the words of the women next to me had now become no more than onomatopoeias in my ear. The efforts I’d made for thirty years to have a trade, give my life some coherence, try to speak and write a language as best I could so as to be certain of my nationality–all that tension suddenly released. It was over. I was nothing now. Soon I would sleep out of this park toward a metro stop, then a train station and a port. When the gates closed, all that would remain of me would be the raincoat I’d been wearing, rolled into a ball on a bench.”

The other two novellas, Suspended Sentences and Flowers of Ruin are supposedly more autobiographical as Modiano puts his ten year old self, Patoche, as the main character of Suspended, detailing his upbringing by friends of his mother as she traveled North Africa with the theater. There are allusions to his father’s imprisonment, and involvement with the Rue Lauriston gang (known as the Carlingue in real life). Flowers tracks Patrick as a college student trying to further unravel the mystery of his past, Pachecho the older man who isn’t who he says he is, and potential involvement in the double suicides of a young married couple in 1933.

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Finally, a recommendation from Patti Smith that I really enjoyed.