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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Modiano and the erasure of memory

2nd novella in the Yale UP edition of 3 Patrick Modiano novellas - each orig published separately ca 1990 - is the title piece of this collection, Suspended Sentences. Here's another example of the translator taking liberties and actually surpassing the author with this title: which in French was I think Remise Peine - I think a literal translation would be Reduced Sentence, but maybe that could be Suspended (i.e., Remitted), and is Peine sentence, or punishment? In any event, Suspended Sentences, the translator making it plural, gives a great double-meaning to this strange novella. The story is roughly this: an adult man ca 1990 looks back on his childhood sometime in the postwar years, maybe late 1940s, when he was 10; his mother is an actor and she goes off god knows where on a long tour, and his father is in some kind of intl business and stops by on occasional pass-throughs in Paris - and the boy and his younger brother are entrusted to a household of 3 women, one a retired circus performer, the other 2 involved in some kind of nightclub in Montmartre. This is a story of absences and emptiness: the boy goes through a year or so in this situation, and it's obvious to us though not quite to him that the family he's with and their wealthy friends from Paris are involved in some kind of criminal scheme. The story builds to a conclusion at which the one day the boy comes home from school and everyone's gone and the place is cleared out. Over time, in later years, he tries to track down some of the people w/ whom he'd crossed paths during that year - with little luck - a very persistent theme in Modiano's work, the failed historical (personal) investigation. The entire story is about mood and missed connections - the boy seems to be having a good time throughout with his brother and some friends, but we know all along something is terribly wrong. We learn by the end that the whole gang was arrested for racketeering - and there are some strange hints, as well, that their criminal enterprises had something to do with selling goods that the Nazis had seized from Jews. Just as the first novella in this collection is about disappearing - as millions of people did during the war, either living in hiding or dying - this one is about the erasure from time and memory of an organized crime: can there be criminal activity going on all around us and we're unaware, like the 10-year-old boy? Of course - an entire nation closed its eyes to criminality and barbarism. As I describe Modiano I realize that I make him sound both better and worse than he actually is: On the one hand, these are not exciting mystery stories - they are mysterious but not mysteries, so you won't get clues, surprises, plot resolutions. On the other hand, the stories will not confound you like so many others that play w/ time, space, and narrative reliability: they are simple and pretty easy to follow, and engaging. The obvious comparison among his contemporaries is the great Sebald, who should have won a Nobel (as Modiano did) but these are less researched and less driven by eccentric and obsessed characters), but they share the same need to unearth the truth behind an elusive narrative.

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