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13 October 2014

Why nobody knows what to think about Patrick Modiano winning the Nobel Prize for Literature

The French author has never been internationally popular, but he is nevertheless widely studied. Leo Robson looks at the reaction to his Nobel win, and what this tells us about the way his work is perceived.

By Leo Robson

Patrick Modiano after winning the Prix Goncourt in 1978. Photo: Getty

In a Victorian library in St James’s Square, just around the corner from the Royal Academy, where the Anselm Kiefer retrospective has been pulling big crowds, the work of the French novelist Patrick Modiano lies unloved and unread. Also born in 1945, also resident in Paris, similarly precocious – both made a splash in their early twenties – and prodigious – the work just keeps on coming – Modiano also shares with Kiefer a concern with Nazism, defective communal and individual memory, and his country’s behaviour during the Second World War. But while Kiefer’s enormous paintings have been garnering praise and prestige, Modiano’s slender volumes are gathering dust. You might say that Kiefer’s work travels better, being similarly legible to a Brit and Frenchman as to a German or Austrian, but even once a Modiano book has made the leap into English, the accessibility isn’t always exploited. The London Library is among the very few institutions that will let you take home a copy of Missing Person, the translation of Modiano’s Goncourt winner Rue des Boutiques Obscures (1978), and yet nobody troubled to do so between 1981 and 1998.

This general state of affairs was brought to a sudden end last Thursday, when Modiano, the author of around twenty-five books, among them autobiographies, autobiographical novels, and illustrated books for children, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, ahead of numerous better-known – and more media-friendly – writers, including his compatriot Michel Tournier. In one stroke, Modiano achieved the name-recognition, if not necessarily the readership, that he has always lacked outside France. There is some disagreement among scholars of French literature and Francophile intellectuals about whether this has been an expected turn of events – and a happy one.

“It was certainly quite a surprise”, says Colin Davis, professor of French at Royal Holloway, adding that his money would have been on the Algerian novelist Assia Djebar. “I don’t doubt the French are astonished”, John Sturrock, a critic specialising in French fiction, tells me. But just as Sturrock praised some of Modiano’s early books in the TLS but confesses that he “didn’t go on reading him”, so Davis commends Modiano’s work as “challenging and eminently readable” but doesn’t view him as a central figure. (He once wrote that the academic study of Modiano’s work had “a great deal further to go before his standing as an author can be taken for granted”.)

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Elsewhere, bafflement was loudly proclaimed. The critic Jonathan Meades, who made a documentary about Vichy France, recalls reading Modiano’s Les Boulevards de Ceinture, winner of the 1972 Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française and published in English under the title Ring Roads. “Chandler rewritten by Robbe-Grillet”, he told a friend, the poet Geoffrey Grigson, at the time. “And nowhere near as good as either.” Today, he praises Modiano for having “the modesty to be as amazed as everyone else”, adding that Michel Tournier “is far more deserving but then there is the long litany of those who deserved and never got it. It’s as though the FA Cup was always won by Tranmere.”

There was a feeling expressed elsewhere that, whatever Meades thinks, the FA Cup had in fact been won by Manchester United – even Manchester City. “I’m absolutely delighted”, says the French-born British writer Gabriel Josipovici, who names Dora Bruder (1998), a documentary account of a fifteen-year-old Holocaust victim published in English under the title Search Warrant, as a book he found “especially moving”. John Flower, a former professor of French at Kent, also welcomes the news and argues that “out of the present crop of major novelists Modiano is one who will continue to be valued.” Flower, like many Modiano admirers, calls his prose “subtle” – detractors tend to go for “portentous” – while Gerald Prince, a well-known scholar of French theory and literature, calls him “the most graceful writer of French of the past fifty years and the finest explorer of the labyrinths and the tremors of memory”. Prince also acknowledges Michel Tournier’s strong claim to the prize, adding that the first half of Tournier’s The Erl King is “simply great”. But he says that “there are problematic aspects to Tournier”, namely his portrayal of fetishism and paedophilia.


If the French are indeed astonished, as Sturrock says, they might nevertheless be feeling that a justice has been done. The novelist Edmund White tells me that Modiano’s work was “always highly respected” during the 1980s, when he lived in France. People even talk of “le phénomène Modiano”. His books, published by Gallimard, often linger in the bestseller lists. “(The initial print run of his new novel, published earlier this month, was 100,000.) John Flower ascribes this success partly to “the continuing and very real interest in the period of the Occupation and Resistance” and partly to “the popularity of the detective novel”, a form that Modiano often deploys.

In England and America, where few obsess over the Occupation but detective novels are devoured in their millions, Modiano has received almost no attention in the last thirty years. There are twenty-eight Modiano books that have been published in Spanish, twenty-one in German, twelve in Swedish, but the five British editions of his work, the product of four publishers and five translators, are all unavailable. At the time of the Nobel announcement, the only English-language publisher with Modiano books in print was the Boston-based David R Godine.

Visiting the Frankfurt Book Fair in the early 1990s, the company’s founder had asked Gallimard to recommend their best French writers who were not much published in English – and was given the names Sylvie Germain, J M G Le Clézio, who won the Nobel Prize in 2008, and Modiano. Godine have sold just enough copies of their Modiano titles, Missing Person and Honeymoon, a translation of Voyage de Noces (1990), over the last two decades to keep them in print, as part of their Verba Mundi series, which also includes celebrated novels by Germain (The Book of Nights) and Le Clézio (Desert). Otherwise, the record is patchy, with all British editions long out of print. Yale University Press, an Anglo-American publisher, had been planning to publish, as part of their own translation series, a book comprising three Modiano novels in the spring, but the publication date was brought forward, presumably one or two seconds after the historian Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, read Modiano’s name from a piece of crinkled A4 paper.

If Modiano has struggled to gain a following in England, collaborators or detectives probably have little to do with it. This has been the case with virtually all French fiction since the post-war high of Oulipo, whose spokesman Raymond Queneau taught Modiano geometry and encouraged his writing, and the nouveau roman. Without ever being a gang, a move that might have helped them, Modiano, Le Clézio, and Tournier –who referred to the “impasse du nouveau roman” – initiated what has been called the “narrative turn” in French fiction. Writing in 1975, the novelist François Nourissier, casting around for new French writers “of consistently high quality”, named those three. But this turn or return – the resumption of normal narrative service – has struggled to replace the strictures of Oulipo and the nouveau roman, offering little to compete with Robbe-Grillet’s headline-grabbing claims that the Balzac model, and “the old myths of depth”, had expired.

But while Modiano has never been internationally popular, he is nevertheless widely studied. Although Flower recognises Tournier’s The Erl-King as a book that took off in a way that Modiano’s books haven’t, he says that his student always offered “a very enthusiastic response” to Modiano. Gerald Prince tells me that his work-in-progress, a guide to the French novel between 1951 and 2000, so far contains more entires on Modiano than on any other writer. There are over twenty books devoted to Modiano’s work, often with titles containing the words “self”, “myth”, “postmodern”, “biography”, “memory”, and “history”, and by no means all of them are French. Modiano specialists are to be found in Australia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, and Holland, and the Modiano industry was busy enough to inspire, in 2004, an international conference at Kent, organised by Flower, who later edited a collection of the papers. Chapter titles include “La mémoire de la Shoah: Dora Bruder”, “Fade-Out: Patterns of inconclusion in Modiano’s novels”, and “Les biographies imaginaires de Patrick Modiano : entre mythe et histoire”.


The Nobel citation, using its familiar formula, praised Modiano “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”. This is the first time “memory” has been invoked, but then Marcel Proust is among the writers on Meades’s “long litany” on non-winners, passed over for such Tranmeres as Carl Spitteler. Proust is a regular point of comparison for Modiano’s work – the critic Jean-Pierre Salgas, in an essay about “le roman francais contemporain”, acclaimed Modiano as “the author of this Recherche du temps perdu, which goes from La place de l’étoile (1968) to Dora Bruder (1997)”.

But Edmund White, the author of a book on Proust, isn’t convinced. “Whereas Proust writes in long, grammatically complex sentences, Modiano sticks to the style blanc, the unadorned manner of most contemporary writers. Whereas Proust is explicitly concerned with the social effects of the Dreyfus Affair and the Great War, Modiano is usually apolitical except for an interest in the Occupation.  Proust’s characters are highly colored and indelible; Modiano’s are more like pencil sketches.” Instead, White says, Modiano is an ideal sort of modern French writer, “one who writes a book a year, whose work is marked by short sentences and simple language, who likes to invoke and distort a popular genre such as the crime novel, who is never comic, whose books could be seen as chapters in one long novel”. Gerald Prince says that Modiano has created “a singular world, labyrinthine, enveloped by fog” – the fog being around his father’s conduct during the Occupation, in particular his possible involvement with the Gestapo. (His father’s library contained anti-Semitic material such as Brassilach’s Notre avant-guerre and Celine’s pamphlets.) Modiano himself has been happy to admit – perhaps because it would be impossible to deny – that he has always written “le même roman”.

Allowing for variations, the Modiano super-novel, or novel cut-out, is narrated by a male writer estranged from his parents, in love with an ethereal girl who disappeared, and liable to transcribe phone numbers and unfamiliar pan-European names. He visits la rue Lauriston, once the headquarters of the Carlingue, the French wing of the Gestapo, an organisation led by small-time crooks with whom the narrator’s father may or may not have been associated. He mourns an adored, long-dead younger brother. He pays tribute to salad days joyfully spent reading, feeling free, and not washing much on the Left Bank in the early 1960s. If a Modiano keyword like “ceinture” suggests the time’s obscuring circularity, then “jeunesse”, evoking reliable chronology, represents a counterbalancing good.

Modiano’s aim has been to place his own personal history against a broader social backdrop. He has called himself “a plant that grew out of a dung heap”, and, more directly, at least at first, “a product of the Occupation, the time when one could simultaneously be a trafficker of black market, a gestapiste of the Lauriston street and a pursued man. It is in this time when I met my father, a cosmopolitan Jew, and my mother, a comedian of Belgian origin, in the pre-war cinema”. (Modiano’s first language was Flemish; his parents split soon after the war.) The reference to meeting his own parents before he was born is partly clarified by a comment in Livret de Famille (1977), not yet in English: “my memory precedes my birth. I am convinced, for example, that I have first-hand experience of Paris during the Occupation since I can recall certain characters from this time, together with some intimate and disturbing details, which go unmentioned in the history books.”

Modiano’s characters often try to find peace in the present through a reckoning with the past, though past and present are never allowed to be wholly separate. Thriller mechanics often yield an existential outcome, though rarely a conclusive one. The ultimate Modiano sentence can be found in Missing Person, in which an out-of-work private eye investigates his own forgotten past: “And in this labyrinthine maze of buildings, staircases and lifts, among these hundreds of cubbyholes, I found a man who perhaps. . . ” Worst case scenario of the quest for closure and salvation is realised in Un Cirque Passe (1992), not yet translated, when the narrator writes: “It was at number 14 du la rue Raffet. But the topographical details had a peculiar effect on me: far from bringing images of the past closer and clearer, they brought a heartbreaking sensation of broken ties and emptiness.” Directories and documents are often invoked in his novels, recorded fact being memory made stable–or promising to be.

As well as forming part of the narrative turn in post-Robbe-Grillet French fiction, Modiano is also strongly associated with “la mode rétro”, the historical turn in French culture as a whole, which dispelled Gaullist myths about the resistance, revealing instead how les années noires haunted les trente glorieuses. Modiano has expressed guilt about typing away during the period of student and worker revolt but as it turned out, his project dovetailed with this movement by showing in extensive detail, often derived from archival sources, the extent of French collaboration. Modiano was an early contributor to a revisionist project that included Marcel Ophuls’s long documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1971) and Robert Paxton’s book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944, published in 1972 and translated into French the following year.

Modiano was sufficiently associated with this territory after his first two novels that Louis Malle, who had adapted Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro, asked Modiano to work with him (the standard term “collaborate” strikes the wrong note) on a screenplay about a boy who becomes involved with the Nazis. Not yet thirty, Modiano was already the go-to guy for Vichy atmosphere. Malle told Philip French that Modiano helped him “tremendously”, particularly with the portrayal of the Jewish family. One line which Malle credited to – or blamed on – Modiano, when the daughter of this family declares “I’m tired of being Jewish”, caused some trouble, but the resulting film Lacombe Lucien became a central contribution to la mode rétro and won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. (Later in the decade Malle and Modiano worked with Susan Sarandon on an adaptation of Conrad’s Victory; it was never filmed.)

By 1974, Modiano had already been typecast as the Occupation novelist, and he didn’t do much to vary things. At the start of the next decade, one reviewer – who subsequently translated his novel Voyage de Noces – said that while she wouldn’t go as far as saying that Modiano, “the darling of the French critics”, has no clothes, his “few suits” are already beginning to “look threadbare”. But while reviewers complain about diminishing returns, academics relish a revisited theme – and prize judges, especially the Nobel committee, love a dogged pursuit.

The Nobel citation is constructed to honour writers with a main or sole  preoccupation. Orhan Pamuk was said to have hit upon “new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures”, Harold Pinter to have uncovered “the precipice under everyday prattle”. Modiano’s probing of discomfiting memories, previously a crutch, has now become his great contribution, like Pamuk’s East-West paradoxes and Pinter’s menacing small talk. (One difference between Modiano and those writers is that he is well-known for being inarticulate; his publisher is reportedly worried about his Nobel acceptance speech.)

Although Modiano has written substantial books across many decades, from La Place de l’Etoile in 1968 and Livret de famille – one of many “autobiographies” – in 1977 via Voyage de Noces and Dora Bruder to Un Pedigree – another one – in 2005, he has been most often recognised for his work as a whole – for the long Modiano novel rather than the smaller ones that make it up. There was the 300,000F Grand Prix de Littérature Paul Morandin in 2000 (Le Clézio won the inaugural prize in 1980), the €25,000 Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 2012, and the €300,000 Prix mondial Cino Del Duca. Last year, ten of his novels were published in a volume by Quarto. But his significance is often acclaimed in particular terms. The Del Duca prize is given to a writer of any nationality promoting a message of humanism, the Nobel goes “the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency”, and he hasn’t yet been nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, which claims only to recognise “literary excellence”. (Tournier was on the longlist in 2007.)

Modiano, an eccentric interviewee, once compared the Goncourt to Miss France, and his own Nobel victory is likely to encourage prize-bashing. There will be some onlookers who, recognising a Jewish writer who tends to postmodernism and autobiography, and explores family grievances and secret pasts, will view it as a conscious and perverse decision once again to deprive Philip Roth. Readers not convinced of Roth’s position as the prime American candidate may well ask why it was Modiano, and not Thomas Pynchon, who has been recognised for a body of work full of funny names, moral ambiguity, and repurposed cloak-and-daggerisms. The Murakami contingent will wonder why the prize has been given to a comparatively obscure – rather than a globally adored – chronicler of repressed national memory about Second World War atrocities and middle-aged nostalgia for halcyon adolescence, of dark alleyways boldly stalked, Japanese pianists bemusedly indulged, and old flames joyfully rediscovered. For the time being, though, as Modiano, his supporters, and his critics recover from the shock, non-readers will just have to give this newly crowned Miss World – and the crowning committee – the benefit of the doubt.

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