Patrick Modiano is this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded ‘for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation’. The decision of the Swedish Academy astounded the whole world, as many were betting that the Prize will be given to Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Nobody even mentioned Modiano as a potential candidate. Outside of his native France, he is not particularly well known and not many of his works were translated.
1. The past is his inspiration.
He was born in 1945 in Boulogne-Billancourt, on the western outskirts of Paris. Modiano’s mother was a Belgian actress and his father was a Jewish-Italian adventurer. When Hitler invaded France and the Nuremberg Laws were implemented, his father, despite the danger, decided not to leave Paris. He dealt on the black market during the war and managed to escape from the round-up and it was his colorful character that captured the imagination of Modiano. Later, it was the father figure and the theme of identity that came to be crucial in Modiano’s works.
2. His work relates to post memory.
He grew up in the shadow of stories about the war and the Holocaust and by listening to them he discovered his own identity: his Jewishness. Looking for traces of places and people, following stories and from them constructing a reality is Patrick Modiano’s signature. He perfectly describes it in The Search Warrant, which was published in French in 1997: ‘There are the sort of people who leave few traces. Virtually anonymous. Inseparable from those Paris streets, those suburban landscapes where, by chance, I discovered they had lived’. In his novels, time is a relative concept. However, Modiano constantly and almost obsessively refers to the hours and years, almost as if using numbers he could validate his creative imagination and blur the lines between fiction and reality. There are a lot of narrative gaps in his novels, suggesting that the memories he is attempting to gather together are not fully completed.
3. The atmosphere of his novels recall the new wave movies.
Main features of the New Wave include free editing style, lack of explanation of characters’ motivations, the authenticity and ‘natural’ feel of the story and a close relationship with the place of action. All of this aligns with Patrick Modiano’s novels. Paris, its narrow cobbled streets, theaters, cinemas and restaurants hidden in the alleys play a major role in his works. All places are initially shrouded in mystery of human stories and Modiano gradually discovers many, but not all of them, leaving space for the reader’s imagination. There are no great individuals in the center of the action: there are, instead, ordinary people who were badly affected by the tragic events of the twentieth century.
4. He wrote a children’s book.
Not every Nobel Prize winner has written a fairy tale for children, but Patrick Modiano did. Catherine Certitude was published in 1988, a few years after Modiano’s two daughters were born. Now, Marie is a singer and actress, who graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and Zina is a film director.
5. His novels are beautiful, short and easy to read.
If you are overwhelmed with the above description of the subjects explored by Patrick Modiano and you think that reading about the Second World War is a little bit too heavy for you, don’t worry. He wrote more than thirty books and maybe one exceeds two hundred pages. Despite their complex topics, the books are so gripping that it’s difficult to put them down. The genius of Modiano’s style is that he uses single sentences, simple words, short chapters and still manages to touch the reader’s heart. As a writer, he is present in the action and almost like a detective solves the mystery of human fate, but remains cool and unemotional, further sharpening the history and its effect on the reader.