Suspended Sentences by recent Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano is a collection of three novellas called respectively: Afterimage, Suspended Sentences and Flowers of Ruin. The original French title, Chien de Printemps, meaning roughly “Dog of Spring” bears no relation. Wondering if the French phrase had some idiomatic meaning that I was missing, I came up with this, which is amazingly obscure but not irrelevant. If you hit the link provided you’ll realize what a quagmire I stepped into when I dared to read this book. Making it plain: I loved the book. Maybe if I read it multiple times, I would unravel more of its dark mysteries. But I don’t want to put you off. It’s wonderful puzzle fiction with that humor that comes from joyously mind fucking the reader. Suspended Sentences is like a Rubix Cube that you don’t realize you are holding in your hands until it’s too late because you are already sucked in.
The three novellas, read in sequence, are increasingly complex. in Afterimage the nineteen year old narrator meets Francis Jansen, a gifted photographer who was an associate of legendary Robert Capa. Jansen wants to take a picture of him and his girlfriend in a cafe in order to fulfill a routine assignment. Their acquaintance, which seems random, lasts for the spring of 1962. Jansen is gone by June.
The teenager ends up cataloging Francis Jansen’s work, a massive lifetime collection of photographs that are kept heaped in a suitcase. He is given his own key to Jansen’s studio. When Jansen decides to isolate himself from his few remaining friends, his new assistant fields calls and visits to the studio, keeping the old friends at bay.
After pushing back his friends, Jansen splits leaving no traces…except for the old friends who are still hanging around for a while. He takes the suitcase filled with his life work, leaving his assistant with a copy of the detailed catalog that the young man has prepared for him.The temporary assistant wonders if he has drawn up a meticulous catalog to an important collection that might be casually thrown out. Jansen doesn’t seem to care about his pictures.
Thirty years later, in the early ‘90’s, which is the present time of this collection, the dutiful cataloger tells us that fifteen years ago, he tried to restore some connection to Jansen by visiting the country house of the married couple, the Meyendorff’s, who were among the close friends that the photographer had pushed away. He finds the house deserted. The Meyendorff’s have moved to America. Peeking into a window, he looks over the living room where the Meyendorff’s must have entertained Francis Jansen on many occasions. Time has moved on, everyone has vanished. He can probably buy the deserted house if he wants it.
In the title story, Suspended Sentences, a narrator who appears to be the author, narrates his and his brother’s childhood in a house of friends of his parents. His mother and father rarely appear, they are off on their obscure doings But many other characters are introduced into the household. Modiano sometimes introduces lists of characters, like mini catalogues, into his stories with capsule descriptions. Sometimes these characters never appear in the book again that I can discern. But it’s hard to tell since there are so many of them. And typically with Modiano’s obsession with location, he meticulously describes the house across the street from where the children live and then serially lists every building on the avenue that runs perpendicular to their street.
Modiano is also obsessed with place names. Several dozen Paris locations are mentioned in the course of the storytelling. For every incident in the stories, Modiano specifies the location. Since I don’t know Paris, I spot googled several of the avenues. streets and boulevards to assure myself that they were “real”. What do writers make up and what do they leave alone? I was suspicious of a bus route…naturally if a Modiano character rides on a bus the writer is going to tell us which bus it was. Route 63 in Paris? It’s real, I checked and it’s probably the one that the writer used as a child to travel to school.
The people in Modiano stories vanish like smoke but the locales they occupy are real…or were real…in certain decades but not in others. Modiano has a character who lives in a remote house. First the character leaves town and the store that he owned in Paris closes. Then his former home is torn down. Characters seem to melt away just at the point where you were beginning to grasp them.
The last story in the collection is what you have been waiting for if you have been intrigued by the first two stories. Flowers of Ruin has the most complex flashback scheme. It starts with an intriguing tale of a couple in 1930’s Paris who return to their apartment after a late evening and apparently kill themselves. They may have met two other couples on their evening out but we are not sure. Nor are we sure who those people were. They may have been at a particular bar the night of their death but we’re not positive. The story alludes to the ‘40’s, leaps to the 60’s and then to current time which is the 90’s. As characters appear and disappear, they sometimes change names and identities and sometimes engage in criminal behavior, as if you were in a film noir. But that’s not clear either!
You must have had this experience: You work with someone for about six months or a year. You like them, perhaps you are even casual friends. Then their life takes them somewhere else. They get a farewell party in the office. You know vaguely where they are going, what they plan to do as a profession, maybe who they are going to marry. They tell you of their plans for the future, which may be true, but you know sometimes are not. Then they are gone and you never hear from them again. Years later, you wonder how they are doing but you don’t even remember their name! If you are susceptible to those kinds of feelings, or ever wanted to look up an old friend or wondered: “Where are they now?, then you will be attracted to these stories.
I have tried to exemplify the enigmatic allure of Suspended Sentences…or “Spring Dog”…whatever, I can’t even come up with a settled title. The more I attempt to talk about this book, the more mysterious it becomes, with shadows pursuing the shadowy. I have provided a hint of its seductive engagement, its sense of adventure in the face of our fluid world. I hope that’s enough to reel you in. But at 1,147 words I’m barely getting started.