The French have the whole memory thing down,what with Marcel Proust and his remembrances. Not forgetting that our word memoir is in point of fact their word co-opted by us.
Patrick Modiano continues the fine traditions in his super short novella ‘After Images’, the first of 3 novellas collected in the book ‘Suspended Sentences’, which helped him collect a Nobel Prize for Literature.
What grabbed me about this work was its subject matter. It’s the story of a Magnum-style photographer called Jansen who is befriended by a young French man who acts as our narrator.
Photography in this book is about the cataloguing and collecting of memories. Images evoke half-forgotten scenes from a past life and even deceive us into believing we were there when an incident occurred, when in reality we merely imagined it.
Everyone in the book feels strangely or literally absent. Our narrator starts by saying,
I met Francis Jansen when I was nineteen …… and want to relate what little I knew about him.”
This continues when he describes Jansen’s on/off girlfriend as someone ‘he didn’t know much about’ and who Jansen ‘only spoke of indirectly’.
Yet these distant characters become the center point of the book, pulling our narrator to recover and meld them meaningful with his own life, a life that seems strangely empty and fragile.
As time passes and he loses the memory of what truly happened and what didn’t, he himself begins to metaphorically vanish,
I was going to disappear…… All that would remain of me would be a raincoat rolled into a ball on a bench.
The book ends with Jansen himself no longer sure who he really is and speculating that somewhere else on the planet,
a brother, a double died in our stead on an unknown date, in an unknown place and his shadow ends up merging with us.
This idea of people as shadowy, ethereal, ghostly figures plays into the whole notion of what a photograph really is, an image created by light falling onto a light-sensitive surface.
It is something that feels substantial, seemingly recording a definite happening in time but as you look closer you see it is merely the impression of this event and as gossamer light as memory itself.