17th December 2014

Nobel Prize for Literature Winner 2014: Patrick Modiano

Books editor Alister Pearson looks at this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Patrick Modiano, and how a man who is barely known outside his native country France managed to win the much revered prize

In October it was announced that this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature would be awarded to 69 year-old Patrick Modiano. He will become the 13th person from France to win the prestigious prize. The Swedish Academy credited Modiano for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

It took four hours from the announcement of Modiano winning the prize to track him down. He was notified of his win by a phone call from his daughter as he walked the streets of Paris, becoming rather emotional in the process. In his first telephone interview since claiming the award, he reflected upon his reaction upon hearing the news, commenting that he was “very moved” and how he “never thought this would happen” to him.

Now it is quite unlikely that many outside France would have known Modiano, especially in Britain, before he won the Holy Grail of literature. Few of his 30-odd novels were ever translated into English and fewer still of these translations remain in print. To put it in perspective, there are more translations of Modiano’s work into Swedish than there are into English.

Although the Nobel Prize for Literature is probably his proudest achievement, it is not his first high-profile award. In 2012 Modiano won the Austrian State Prize for European literature; in 2010 he won the lifetime reward from the Institut de France. During the 70s he won two awards for two of his novels.

In 1972, he won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française for the novel published in the same year, Les Boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads). The story centres arouns a young Parisian meeting his father for the first time in ten years. The 100-page novella is filled with nostalgic memories as the son recollects and compares the memories he has of his father.

It was not long before Modiano produced another book worthy of literary acclaim. 1978 saw him receive the Prix Goncourt for Rue des Boutiques Obscures (Missing Person). Modiano, again, explores the theme of memory, or lack of it, as is the case in this novel. The main character is detective Guy Roland, who is an amnesiac. After his boss retires, Roland decides to go looking for the person he once was. Along the way he learns that he is a Greek Jew, and had a string of unique friends, including a French model, and a dancer of Russian-origin. Modiano explores existentialist themes, and the complex notion of memory in this tale. The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Peter Englund had this to say about Modiano and the novel: “It’s a fun book—playing with the genre, still saying something very fundamental about memory and time. As a person concerned with memory, which I think we all are, he has a very special art of memory, how it works. He is sort of possessed about his attempts to reach back in time, and you can identify yourself with these attempts, and his very original ways to do it.”

What seems remarkable about Modiano’s 45-year career is that every book seems to follow on from the last. That explains why he declined to answer when asked to choose a book by him that would give readers, who were not familiar with his work, the best impression. For Modiano’s work, each book just seems to follow on from this previous book. “It’s as if I stopped to take a break, and then continued with the next stage of the same book,” he said, in addition to his refusal to provide a recommendation.

Another central theme in many novels written by Modiano is the shame and wretchedness of the Second World War and what followed it. His first published novel, La Place de l’Etoile, which was published in 1968, is a semi-biographical piece about the negative effects of anti-Semitism in France during the war. His 1997 publication, Dora Bruder (The Search Warrant) is about a Jewish girl who went missing during Nazi occupation of France.

The sheer amount of work Modiano has managed to produce over his life is staggering. It hasn’t just been novels but also screenplays that he has delved into. In 2003, he wrote the screenplay for Bon Voyage, which was later nominated for a Caesar Award for “best writing”.

Modiano has still not ceased to slow down his rate of production. His latest book, Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier, was published earlier this year and Modiano does not seem to be about to finish writing anytime soon. He is a man whose efforts to continue what he is passionate about have never been deterred. He may not be as well-known as he should be but he can take solace in the fact that he has won perhaps the most renowned prize in literature.

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