By Katie Sargent
A suspended sentence is defined as a judge’s delaying the sentence of a person found guilty in order to allow said defendant to spend a period of time on probation. In this situation, the evidence has been gathered, the verdict decreed, and yet something holds the judge back from definitely convicting the guilty man. Something restrains him from that final measure: perhaps the lack of a clear image within his own mind – as if the case is an unfocused photograph. In his writing in Suspended Sentences, originally published in French, Patrick Modiano exudes the feeling of a judge not entirely convinced on his own judging. An autobiographical-esque collection of hazy memories and fragmented ideas, Suspended Sentences is like a dream.
It is a novel with moments of sparkling clarity; moments when the sun seems to pierce through Modiano’s foggy subconscious and render his mind open to his readers. Yet the majority of the piece, a series of three short stories, gives the reader the idea that although Modiano recalls his young life in Paris, he has not yet decided how he feels about it. In the first of the short stories, Afterimage, Modiano spends several months cataloging the entire inventory of an ornery aging photographer, simply because the man once took a picture of him and his girlfriend in a café. In the second story, Suspended Sentences, he tells the story of his unusual childhood raised by four women. The third features a disconcerting stranger Modiano meets on the street.
It is perhaps the sense of mystery in Modiano’s work that most intrigued me. I never seemed to learn quite enough about him or the people in his life from the memories he provided in his stories. Ideas were half-formed, convictions seldom made, and the narrator barely included dialogue in which he shared his thoughts. At one point, as he describes a television show in which an old friend appears, he states, “nothing remained except the fading echoes in my memory”: no inner reflection, no outward response. At times it was frustrating, but ‘suspended sentences’ was certainly an apt title for this book. Because while I am certain Modiano identifies with his memories (to include them in a memoir, how could he not?), I commend him on his ability to remove all emotion from the telling of them. He does not condemn those that were cruel to him in his young life, or portray them as villains to be dragged in the dirt for tainting his childhood memories.
No, with Suspended Sentences, Modiano provides the characters of his young life with a probation period. Likely he has passed judgment, but he does not force the judgment on his readers, readers who have no doubt come across similar experiences. This was a cleansing read: it reminded me of the ability of every human not to reserve initial judgment – being only human, after all – but to reserve oneself: to retain emotions until ideas are fully formed, and not as the fog in Modiano’s Paris.
Read if you like: descriptions of rainy French cities, photography, a breather
Don’t read if you don’t like: sad smiles, (initially) unfulfilling endings