Modiano's Nobel prize not such a surprise after allMonday 13 October 2014
Dr Ruth Kircher, Lecturer in English Language, explains why Patrick Modiano's work is worthy of the Nobel prize for literature.
Many were surprised when Patrick Modiano was announced as the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.
Since 1901, the prize has been awarded annually (with only few exceptions) by the Swedish Academy to an author from any country in the world. Previous laureates include literary greats such as Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, Nelli Sachs, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing.
Considered by many to be the world’s most prestigious literary award, the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded for the author’s work as a whole. The winner receives a gold medal, a diploma and a money prize of 8 million kronor. While Patrick Modiano may not have been the Swedish Academy’s expected choice, those who have read his work will agree that the 111th laureate is a worthy winner for ‘the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation’ (Nobel prize website).
His work, which centres on issues of identity, loss, memory and guilt, very much fulfils the Academy’s criteria of lasting literary merit and consistent idealism on some significant level. Much of his work draws on actual historical events as well as on his parents’ biographies and his own autobiography. Modiano was born in Paris shortly after the end of the Second World War, to a father of Jewish Italian descent and a Belgian mother who was an actress. His parents met during the Nazi occupation and they had to spend the early phase of their relationship clandestinely. After the war, as his mother was frequently on tour and his father was also often absent, Modiano spent much of his early childhood with his maternal grandparents, from whom he learned his first language, Flemish.
Later, he attended a number of French-speaking boarding schools. The beginnings of his literary career can be traced back to his first encounters with novelist and poet Raymond Queneau, author of works such as Zazie dans le metro (1959), who was a good friend of Modiano’s mother and who helped him with some school work. Queneau subsequently introduced him to his future publishers at Gallimard and remained his life-long friend and mentor. In 1968 Modiano published his first novel, La place de l’étoile, a story about a Jewish collaborator during the Nazi occupation of Paris, for which he won numerous French prizes.
Since then, he has written dozens of other gripping novels, including Rue des boutiques obscures (1978), about an amnesiac detective who attempts to piece together his identity by researching his own life during the occupation, for which Modiano received the most prestigious French literary award, the Prix Goncourt. Modiano has also written a number of screenplays, including that for Louis Malle’s moving film Lacombe, Lucien (1974), about a teenage boy who collaborates with the Nazis during the occupation but then falls in love with a Jewish girl. Moreover,
Modiano has written some wonderful children’s books. While these may deal with lighter topics than his other work, they, too, ask questions of identity and memory. For instance, in the story of Catherine Certitude (1988), a girl who loves nothing more than dancing and spending time with her father, the reader is compelled to find out why Catherine’s father changed his name, and why she eventually decides to leave him behind in Paris and move to New York. Modiano’s work may not have been particularly well-known outside of France before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, but this will certainly change now, and all his future readers have much to look forward to.
Dr Ruth Kircher is a Lecturer in English Language at Liverpool Hope University.