In the northern-hemisphere autumn of 2020, in the few weeks we had where the bookshops were open, I walked into the spacious old textile mill at Saltaire and purchased a book entitled Family Record. An impulse buy. I’d run my fingers down the book’s spine, let it fall open in my palms and felt the quality of the thick paper it was printed on. I hadn’t heard of the book, but I’d heard of the author – a Frenchman by the name of Patrick Modiano – and I like a nicely printed book.
The first Modiano book I read, and fell in love with, was a collection of novellas, published together under the title Suspended Sentences. How I came to own Suspended Sentences or even when I read it is a mystery to me. My copy is a version translated by Mark Polizzotti and printed in 2014 after Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature; Family Record has the same translator, publisher and a similar shiny mark of a prize-winning author on the cover. I think I bought Suspended Sentences in Leeds on some shopping trip that had led me to seek comfort in Waterstones, but it could have been anywhere. I know I had it sitting on my shelf for some time before I finally read it, and I’d bought it because it was modern and French and therefore like nothing else I was reading, but although I am certain that I have read it – an impression remains – I cannot be sure when. I wrote no review and appear to have recorded it on no list.
I took the book, Family Record, to the till so that I could pay, and the masked man behind the counter gushed with enthusiasm for my choice. He hadn’t read Suspended Sentences – which I recommended to him – but he had read other books by Modiano and been enthralled.
If you are one of those people who like to be pulled through a novel, dropped from one cliff-hanging chapter decisively into the action of the next, then Modiano is not the author for you. If he plots, there remains no evidence. Nor does he tie up any loose ends. In fact, he seems to go out of the way to make the threads of his stories fray, their threadbare fabric might be full of character, but these characters don’t necessarily do anything. I read his work hoping for demystification and close the book mystified as to how I can be so in love with the clarity of his writing and yet endlessly disappointed by its obscurity.
In introducing the novellas of Suspended Sentences, and reflecting on his work translating the stories, Polizzotti states “Generally speaking, and despite the ambiguities in his narrative strategy, Modiano’s prose style is straightforward and clear – by which I do not mean simple – and I have aimed above all to preserve that limpid quality in this translation.”
I look at a page at random and I try to work out what it is that I like so much about his writing style. He would be, if one were running a writing class, an eloquent example of the power of varying sentence length. Watch the full stops and you find short sentences embedded in longer sentences, snuggled in the middle of them, pretending simplicity without ever being simple. But that’s not it. There are staccato moments, especially perhaps when we’re in the mind of a boy who’s dealing with what’s laid out in front of him one step at a time. It’s memory, but like when you’ve lost your keyring and you’re trying to piece back together where you’ve been, vocalizing the options, wondering what you could have possibly been doing with your hands that led to the abandonment of the door key. Which surface did you drop them on?
Then there’s a great repetition held in the verbs. By which I don’t mean that the verbs themselves seem to repeat, they don’t. Or well, sometimes they do, but not excessively so. But that verbs are used to build up the scene, give the texture of the scene. They don’t tend to be complex or flowery verbs. They tend to be quite common verbs. Yet they build up gradually, one after another, acting to give weight to a character.
As an example, take a look at these verbs, used in a scene opened at random from the novella Afterimage to describe a man’s movements.
… stationed, waited, crossed, planted (himself), crossed, standing, blocked, turned, following, stopped, folded, stood out, stood, shrugged, strode off…
Suspended Sentences pg 29-31.
So I’m left feeling that although there’s something ethereal about the overall pattern of Modiano’s fragments, each individually is weighted and solid. Through some hard-working verbs, his work grounds itself in the names of people and places, dates and ages, car models and the patterns of wallpaper.
Either way, I’ve two more of his books ordered and shipped and I’m hoping they’ll be gracing my front door in a day or two.