The title novella in Patrick Modiano’s collection, Suspended Sentences, is a masterpiece of disquieting understatement.
The adult narrator, Patrick, tells of the period of his childhood spent (as “Patoche”) with an odd assortment of caretakers – Little Helene, who walked with a slight limp from a circus accident; Annie F., who wore a man’s leather jacket and tight black trousers; and Mathilde F., Annie’s mother, who always called Patroche “blissful idiot.”
Patroche’s parents are alive, but his mother is on a theatrical tour in North Africa, and his father somewhere – Brazzaville perhaps – on unknown business.
It’s an eccentric non-family, made more eccentric by other odd characters who stroll in and out: the perpetually, weirdly smiling Roger Vincent; a young girl known only as “Snow White” who transports Patrick to school; Jean D., who smuggles “pulps” for Patrick to read.
Though the story is told by an adult, Patrick’s telling preserves the bewilderments of childhood. Annie and Roger Vincent take Patroche and his brother on a drive, stop at a shop, and walk out with a leather suitcase that they put into the trunk. The episode is told with utter matter-of-factness, but the reader knows that there’s something suspicious happening. Modiano spins mysteries in that the gap between the childlike telling and the reader’s suspicion.
Modiano includes a final coda where Patrick, now grown and a writer, encounters a man who recognizes his cigarette case as an item stolen from his shop years before. “Suspended sentences” indeed.
But the more obvious significance of the title is self-referential – the suspended sentences of the tale, the sentences that seem suspended in mid-air, without context. And that points to the suspension of life itself. In the words of the epigram from Robert Louis Stevenson, “There is scarce a family that can count four generations but lays a claim to some dormant title of some castle and estate: a claim not prosecutable in any court of law, but flattered to the fancy. . . . A man’s claim to his own past is yet less valid.”