The NEW YORK
Patrick Modiano’s Postwar World
Credit Richard Dumas / Agence VU
The committee in charge of awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature likes to crown its laureates with pronouncements that can seem as incomprehensible as its choice of winner often does. The committee reaches for poetic heights as if in tribute to the accomplishment of the writer it honors; we, the common reader, pore over the announcements like pilgrims who have gone to consult the oracle at Delphi and come away with garbled fortune cookies. J. M. G. Le Clézio, the French novelist who won in 2008, was praised as an “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization”; J. M. Coetzee, 2003’s laureate, “in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider”; Harold Pinter, who won in 2005, alliteratively “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.” (It was a relief to learn, last year, that Alice Munro was simply a “master of the contemporary short story.”)
Today, the prize went to the French novelist Patrick Modiano, “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” Modiano, who is sixty-nine and has been steadily publishing novels since 1968 (his latest, “Pour Que Tu Ne Te Perdes Pas Dans le Quartier,” came out last week), is famous in France, but practically no one here has heard of him. Yale University Press is coming out with a volume of three of his novellas, but the vast bulk of his work remains unavailable in English.
Who is this writer, and what are the ungraspable human destinies he has uncovered? Modiano was born near Paris in July, 1945, to a Flemish mother and a father from a Jewish family with roots in Salonika. He worked his way to the Lycée Henri-IV, the top preparatory school in France, but his formal education ended at seventeen. The five years that followed his baccalaureate were “my novelistic motor,” Modiano told the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles in 2012. Estranged from his family, he roamed around Paris, selling books to make money; he learned to copy the handwriting of famous writers like Paul Valéry and Alain Robbe-Grillet and forged title-page dedications. “It was a bizarre, chaotic period,” Modiano said. The disastrous Algerian War, which had taken up the better part of a decade, had just ended. It was, for Modiano, “a period of strange encounters with older people, who instilled in me the feeling of a permanent danger.”
Like Rushdie’s midnight’s children, Europeans born in 1945 share a certain liminal condition. They escaped the threat, but not the taint, of the war. They were born into freedom but conceived in turmoil; they grew up looking over their shoulders. In 1969, Anselm Kiefer, who was born two months before Modiano, produced “Occupations,” a series of photographs that show him posing at locations in Italy, Switzerland, and France with his arm raised in a ghostly Sieg Heil. Kiefer, a German, was visiting the scenes of the crime in the guise of the criminal. He wanted, as he put it, not to find out “whether I am a Nazi, but whether I would have been one.” Modiano’s first novel, published the year before “Occupations,” involves a similar kind of projection into the narrowly escaped past. Set in 1942 in a phantasmagoric Paris (Proust, Freud, Hitler, and Dreyfus all make appearances), it is called “La Place de l’Étoile”—a reference to the rotunda at the head of the Champs Elysées that circles the Arc de Triomphe, but also to the yellow felt star worn by Jews during the Occupation.
“La Place de l’Étoile” appeared at a moment when the core tenet of French postwar identity—“the myth of France as a nation of resisters,” as the French writer Clémence Boulouque put it to me when I called her to discuss Modiano’s win—was beginning to crumble. (The book was published in May, 1968, the same month that the famous student protests in Paris began; General de Gaulle, the President of the Republic and the living symbol of French heroism during the war, fled to a military base in Germany to wait it all out.) Modiano knew the soiled truth firsthand. His father had refused to wear the star and did not turn himself in when Paris’s Jews were rounded up for deportation to concentration camps; he spent the war doing business on the black market and hanging around with the Gestapo stationed on the Rue Lauriston. Boulouque, who is currently a post-doctoral fellow in Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, told me that in his three dozen or so novels Modiano has returned again and again to the same themes: the pull of the past, the threat of disappearance, the blurring of moral boundaries, “the dark side of the soul.” Modiano, she told me, believes that “the novelist has an ethical duty to record the traces of the people who have vanished, the people who were made to disappear.” It will not have escaped the attention of the Nobel committee that Modiano’s win comes at a time when anti-Semitism in France is on the rise, as is the rate of French Jews’ emigration to Israel. The fear that French Jews are not safe in their own land, that French Jewish culture may vanish, is once again palpable, and real.
Boulouque wrote a master’s thesis on Modiano, and he subsequently helped her publish her first book. She considers him to be the greatest living French writer. “I’m jumping up and down,” she said. “I cried tears of joy.”
The reaction in France, too, has been largely celebratory. The country is no stranger to the Nobel; Modiano is their fifteenth literature laureate, but after Le Clézio’s 2008 win the possibility of another so soon seemed a distant prospect. Stylistically, Modiano is certainly French; in an e-mail, Josyane Savigneau, of Le Monde, called his writing “delicate, subtle, restrained,” and praised the man himself as discrete and generous, detached from his literary celebrity. “He doesn’t create symphonies or operas,” she wrote, “but he’s an excellent pianist.”
Still, however glad she was to see the Nobel go to Modiano, Savigneau wrote that she was “indignant, as ever, to see them forget Roth.” Fair to say that she’s far from the only one. Congratulations to Patrick Modiano, and to the translators who may soon be gainfully employed putting many of his works into English. But, as the saying goes in Newark, next year in Stockholm.