Suspended Sentences, by Patrick Modiano

I look forward to each year’s announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature not in the hope that the members of the Swedish Academy will validate my tastes but that they’ll introduce me to authors with whom I’m unfamiliar. As critics and supporters have noted, for every Alice Munro and Mario Vargas Llosa who receives the prize, the Academy also bestows its honor on writers many readers have never heard of, such as China’s Mo Yan, the 2012 winner, or J.M.G. Le Clezio, the French laureate from 2008.

In a repeat of sorts of 2008, the Swedish Academy this year gave the Nobel Prize to Patrick Modiano, a French author little known in English-speaking countries. On the morning of the announcement, thousands went on social media to announce with varying levels of civility that they had never heard of Modiano and that the Academy had once again bypassed worthier authors in favor of a lesser name.

I hadn’t heard of Modiano, either. I have seen Lacombe, Lucien, the 1974 film that Modiano co-wrote with its director, Louis Malle, but I didn’t remember that Modiano was the co-scenarist. The film, about a 17-year-old Frenchman who joins the Gestapo after the French resistance turns him down, deals with themes that appear throughout Modiano’s work. His focus is the Nazi Occupation and its effect on France and the collective French psyche in the two decades after the end of World War II.

Suspended Sentences, which Yale University Press has just published in English translation, is a collection of three novellas that Modiano wrote between 1988 and 1993. All three novellas are first-person narratives told by a man who, like Modiano, was born in 1945 and had a father who was captured by the Germans and sent to the Drancy transit camp. The stories read like detective fiction and include such characters as a photographer with a murky past, black marketeers, and a couple involved in a mysterious murder-suicide.

Don’t listen to critics who tell you that Modiano’s writing is Proustian. Yes, he writes remembrances of things past, but his style is far less poetic than Proust’s. His spare prose is closer to that of Marcel Pagnol, the author of My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle, and his use of repetition brings to mind the writings of Alain Robbe-Grillet. The Academy may have bypassed perennial favorites like Philip Roth and Haruki Murakami, but they picked an author whose work deserves the worldwide attention it is now receiving.

My review of Suspended Sentences is on Bookreporter’s site.

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