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Book Discussion Group: Suspended Sentences

Find out what the group is currently reading, when the next meeting will take place, and what previous books have been read.

Nobel Prize

Nobel Prize, any of the prizes (five in number until 1969, when a sixth was added) that are awarded annually from a fund bequeathed for that purpose by the Swedish inventor and industrialist Alfred Bernhard Nobel. The Nobel Prizes are widely regarded as the most prestigious awards given for intellectual achievement in the world.

In the will he drafted in 1895, Nobel instructed that most of his fortune be set aside as a fund for the awarding of five annual prizes “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” These prizes as established by his will are the Nobel Prize for Physics, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the Nobel Prize for Peace. The first distribution of the prizes took place on December 10, 1901, the fifth anniversary of Nobel’s death. An additional award, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, was established in 1968 by the Bank of Sweden and was first awarded in 1969. Although not technically a Nobel Prize, it is identified with the award; its winners are announced with the Nobel Prize recipients, and the Prize in Economic Sciences is presented at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony.

"Nobel Prize". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2015
<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/416856/Nobel-Prize>.

 

Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano     French writer

Patrick Modiano,  (born July 30, 1945, Boulogne-Billancourt, France), French writer who in more than 40 books used his fascination with the human experience of World War II to examine individual and collective identities, responsibilities, loyalties, memory, and loss. In 2014 he became the 15th Frenchman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Upon announcing the prizewinner, the Swedish Academy cited “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” Because of his obsession with the past, Modiano was sometimes compared to Marcel Proust, though their styles and concerns were quite different.

Modiano was born in a suburb of Paris, shortly after the end of World War II, to a somewhat shadowy Jewish Italian businessman and a Flemish actress. By Modiano’s own account, he was much influenced by his geometry teacher, experimental writer Raymond Queneau, who, among other things, introduced him to the literary world. Modiano’s first novel, La Place de l’Étoile (1968; “The Star’s Place,” a reference to the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear on their clothing), concerns a Jewish collaborator and is possibly based on Modiano’s father. In 1972 his third novel, Les Boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads), won the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Roman. His novel Rue des boutiques obscures (1978; Missing Person)—a thriller in which a man searches for his own identity—won the Prix Goncourt.

Modiano published more-or-less regularly every year or two. Among his best-known volumes are Dora Bruder (1997; Eng. trans. Dora Bruder, U.K. title The Search Warrant), an attempt to reconstruct the life of a missing Jewish girl; and a memoir of his first 21 years, Un Pedigree (2005). Modiano’s entire oeuvre was honoured in 2014, when he was awarded both the Prix de la Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Nobel Prize.

Modiano wrote a children’s book (Catherine Certitude, 1988) and worked on several films. With French film director Louis Malle, Modiano wrote the screenplay for Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974), about a bored teenager who becomes an informer for the Gestapo during the German occupation of France. He likewise cowrote the screenplay for Egyptian director Moshé Mizrahi’s film version of Modiano’s novel Une Jeunesse (1981; film 1983) and was involved with several other films, even playing a cameo role in Chilean director Raúl Ruiz’s Genealogies of a Crime (1997).

Modiano became a noted writer of what the French call autofiction, the blend of autobiography and historical fiction. His writing style was described by one critic as “so spare and elliptical that the words seem only lightly attached to the page.” Throughout his body of work, the reader can readily sense the author’s perception of the unknowability of other people and the ambiguity of events; it is dark writing with a light touch. In a review of Honeymoon, the English translation of Modiano’s Voyage de noces (1990), one reviewer wrote, “At times he reads like a strange cross between Anita Brookner and the Ancient Mariner, forever buttonholing the reader with his own brand of exquisite angst.” Though they are usually set in a specific time and place, so much so that wartime Paris is almost a character in his books, Modiano’s works speak a universal truth about the human condition.

 

"Patrick Modiano". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2015
<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/387330/Patrick-Modiano>.

Suspended Sentences

From the New York Times

The surest sign that international publishers were caught off guard when the French novelist Patrick Modiano won this year’s Nobel literature prize was that few of his books were available in translation. Many people in France were also surprised, but for a different reason. Unlike most of that country’s intellectuals, Modiano has never sought celebrity. Indeed, this 69-year-old man seems as shy and withdrawn today as he was at 23, when his first novel was published.

This is apparent in the stuttering responses he offers in his rare interviews. It is still more evident in the elusive, introspective quality of his writing. His novels have been described as literary detective stories, yet the mysteries he examines are never fully solved, so he keeps returning to them. “I always have the impression that I write the same book, which means it’s already 45 years that I’ve been writing the same book,” he remarked when informed of his Nobel Prize.

The three novellas in “Suspended Sentences” first appeared in France between 1988 and 1993. With another author, they might be considered examples of earlier work, but not so with Modiano. Vividly translated by Mark Polizzotti, they are as good a place as any to enter the long, slow-moving river of Modiano’s fiction.

The Swedish Academy honored him “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” But if “memory” and “occupation” are useful tags for his writing, it is another word — “father” — that provides the real key to his unfinished exploration of the German occupation of France. In his late teens, Modiano deduced that his Jewish-Italian father, Albert, spent the war years as a black marketeer associated with the notorious and brutal Rue Lauriston gang, also known as the French Gestapo. And since his father revealed nothing before his death in 1977, not even who ordered his release from a Jewish detention center in Paris in 1943, Modiano became obsessed with knowing more.

His first novel, “La Place de l’Étoile,” published in 1968 and still not translated into English, is arguably his most explosive. As if directly confronting his father, Modiano’s narrator, Raphaël Schlemilovitch, is an amoral Jew who hangs out with the most renowned French collaborators. Modiano’s father was outraged, and the two became even more estranged.

In most of Modiano’s other books, in which the occupation is more of a past trauma than a continuing tragedy, he sets out to fill the gaps of memory, to discover what really happened. In the 1997 novel “Dora Bruder,” for example, he tries to unravel the mystery of why a 15-year-old Jewish girl fled the safety of a convent in late 1941, only to be recorded months later on a train carrying Jews to Auschwitz.

In the novellas translated now in “Suspended Sentences,” the narrator seems inseparable from Modiano, even calling himself Patoche, a nickname for Patrick. He remembers people, events, buildings and streets from the 1950s and ’60s and then, writing years later, excavates an account of the occupation. Yet where real life gives way to fiction remains unclear.

In “Afterimage,” the 19-year-old narrator meets a middle-aged Jewish-Italian photographer, Francis Jansen, who was arrested during the occupation and released at the request of the Italian Consulate. Befriended by Robert Capa, he worked for some time for the Magnum agency (no Jansen is listed as having been a member of Magnum), but he now plans to abandon photography and leave France. The narrator offers to catalog his prints. “I had taken on this job because I refused to accept that people and things could disappear without a trace,” he writes, as if explaining Modiano’s entire literary mission. He also meets Jansen’s mistress and friends, but when he later writes about them, he laments that “so many proofs and witnesses can disappear in 30 years.”

In the title novella, set in 1955, Patoche and his younger brother are lodged with three women outside Paris while their actress mother is touring and their father is traveling. The house has mysterious visitors, and one evening Patoche hears one say: “Andrée was part of the Rue Lauriston gang.” At the time, this means nothing to him, but: “Subsequently, I again overheard the name in their conversation and I became used to the sound of it. A few years later, I heard it in the mouth of my father, but I didn’t know that ‘the Rue Lauriston gang’ would haunt me for such a long time.”

He describes his father’s detention in the Magasins Généraux on the Quai de la Gare, where looted Jewish belongings were sorted for shipment to Germany. “One night someone showed up in an automobile at the Quai de la Gare and had my father released. I imagined — rightly or wrongly — that it was a certain Louis Pagnon, whom they called ‘Eddy’ and who was shot after the Liberation with members of the Rue Lauriston gang, to which he belonged.”

Patoche’s childhood account also ends abruptly. During his lunch break from school, he finds the women’s house empty. Puzzled, he and his brother go for a walk and return to find the police searching the house. They are told that “something very serious” has happened. “And my brother and I, we pretended to play in the garden, waiting for someone to come collect us.” Only later does he understand that the women and their visitors were trafficking in stolen goods.

In the final novella, “Flowers of Ruin,” the narrator returns to the Left Bank of the 1960s, where, while investigating the double suicide of a young couple that took place in 1933, he finds an old newspaper account suggesting that they had been out on the town just beforehand. Ever the sleuth, he discovers a house near Paris with an elevator “lined with red velvet,” which the dying woman had described. Quite separately, he meets an enigmatic man, some 20 years his senior, who goes by the names of Pacheco and Philippe de Bellune. More newspaper research reveals that someone with those names was a collaborator during the occupation and either died in Dachau or was summoned to appear in court after the war. The man known to the narrator then disappears.

Like scattered memories, stories come and go, some connected, others not. One tells of a Sylviane, who married a penniless aristocrat and ended up as mistress to Pagnon, the gangster who may have freed the narrator’s father from internment. “When my father left the Magasins Généraux, I wonder what route he took in the blackout. He must have felt dumbfounded at having been spared.”

Written several years apart, these novellas fit neatly into Modiano’s “same book,” where the shadowy figures and dark streets of postwar Paris are forever scoured for secrets of an occupation most of the French prefer to forget. “Maybe someday,” the author writes in “After­image,” “I’ll manage to break through that layer of silence and amnesia.” He seems certain to keep trying.

SUSPENDED SENTENCES

Three Novellas

By Patrick Modiano

Translated by Mark Polizzotti