The Nobel-curious reader of this collection of three short novels – Afterimage, Suspended Sentences and Flowers of Ruin – should not be surprised at the way each novel superimposes itself on the others, like some clumsily blurred exposure. It is the mark of 2014 Nobel literature laureate Patrick Modiano’s integrity.
They were written between 1988 and 1993, and are now translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti. All his novels resemble crime stories, but the genre’s usual finale of clarification never occurs. Instead, a narrator whose biography closely imitates Modiano’s tentatively tries to understand the secret history of the atmosphere in which he has grown up.
In Suspended Sentences, set during Modiano’s early childhood, the mystery concerns a group of adults who are looking after two brothers. In Afterimage and Flowers of Ruin, the mystery belongs to a stranger encountered in the narrator’s late adolescence.
The moral opacity, however, is always the same: “The world to which these people belonged revived some memories from childhood: it was my father’s world. Marquis and captains of industry. Gentlemen of fortune. Prison fodder. Angel Maquignon. I rescue them from the void one final time before they sink back into it forever.”
No moral judgment
Modiano’s fiction refuses all interiority while doggedly pursuing the lives of others. It is meticulous with time – neurotically observing dates and times, like a silent movie with its intertitles – and yet its rapid jump cuts mean that the reader is often bewildered.
Each of his novels is a sieve through which various eras fall; just as his fiction is obsessed by proving that a crime has occurred, but refuses all moral judgment on its criminal cast list.
In other words, Modiano is a pure original. He has transformed the novel into a laboratory for producing atmospheres, not situations – where everything must be inferred and nothing can be proved.
“Without fully realising it,” his narrator writes in Flowers of Ruin, “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 a man I had no chance of finding again, and by all those questions that would never have an answer.”
No, you don’t read Modiano for answers. You read each Modiano novel for its place in a giant sequence: a new restatement of a single unsolvable crime.