Nobel prize winner Patrick Modiano
hailed as modern Marcel Proust
Swedish Academy praises ‘art of memory’ in French novelist known for short works marked by sophisticated simplicity
By Mark Brown, Kim Willsher and Alison Flood
The Guaridan, Thursday 9 October 2014
The French novelist Patrick Modiano was hailed on Thursday as a Marcel Proust of our time as he was named the 2014 winner of the Nobel prize for literature.
The Swedish Academy said it was celebrating Modiano’s “art of memory”, rewarding a writer who repeatedly returns to the same themes and subjects: memory, identity and alienation all rooted in the trauma of the Nazi occupation of France.
Modiano, 69, is the 15th Frenchman – never a woman – to win the 8m kronor (£700,000) prize and follows in the footsteps of countrymen such as André Gide, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.
While he is well known in France, Modiano is something of an unknown quantity for even the most widely read literature fans in other countries, with only a smattering of his works published in English.
That will now change. Peter Englund, the Nobel Academy’s permanent secretary, said Modiano was a very accessible writer.
“He is not at all difficult to read. He looks very simple in a sense because he has a very refined, simple, straight, clear style. You open a page and see that it is Modiano, very straight, short sentences, no frills … but it is very, very sophisticated in that simplicity.”
Modiano writes short books of about 130 pages, often in the detective genre, “but complications abound when you get underneath”.
Congratulations for the win were led by the French president, François Hollande, who said: “The republic is proud of the international recognition given, via this Nobel prize, to one of our greatest writers.
“Patrick Modiano is the 15th French person to receive this great distinction, confirming the great influence of our literature.”
The prime minister, Manuel Valls, described Modiano as a “writer of succinct, incisive literature … who is without doubt one of the greatest writers of recent years”.
Modiano himself, known to be publicity shy, has not yet commented, and the academy had been unable to contact him to tip him off.
His publisher, Antoine Gallimard, said: “I had Modiano on the telephone. I congratulated him and with his customary modesty he told me ‘it’s weird’, but he was very happy.”
Englund called him “a kind of Marcel Proust for our time” but with caveats. “This is a very different project from the one Proust once undertook. One of the central themes of Modiano’s work are the problems of reaching back; not reaching back, not understanding, not getting to grips with it.”
Modiano’s win was not a complete surprise. The bookmakers Ladbrokes had him as fourth favourite with odds of 10/1 – he was 100/1 several months ago – while the overall favourite had been the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
The choice, announced in Stockholm, will disappoint anyone hoping for a writer who was not – once again – white, European and male, although the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro was last year’s winner.
Englund said of course Modiano was a white, European male but he was one who wrote great literature.
“We don’t work according to quotas, we are just trying to give the prize to excellence and we don’t concern ourselves too much with ‘well, now we should have someone from this continent or that gender’. It would make our work impossible.”
Modiano’s work is infused with his own unhappy childhood. Born in Paris in 1945 his father was Albert Modiano, an Italian Jew who survived the war thanks to black market business deals with the Gestapo.
He largely abandoned the family and Modiano once said of his mother, a Belgian actor called Louisa Colpeyn, that her heart was so cold that her lapdog leapt from a window to its death. It is also said that he does not know where his father is buried.
Modiano was first brought up by his maternal grandparents who taught him Flemish, his first language. After that were long, unhappy years at boarding school.
He has also written children’s books and film scripts and has said that, as many writers, he is always writing the same novel – “on fait toujours le même roman”.
Probably his best known work, for which he won France’s prestigious Goncourt literary prize in 1978, is Missing Person, about a detective who loses his memory and endeavours to find it.
The winner is chosen by an academy consisting of 18 prominent Swedish literary figures. This year 210 nominations were received 36 of which were first timers.
That then became a 20-name longlist and then a five-name shortlist which involved academicians reading the entire outputs of different writers.
Modiano will receive his prize on 10 December, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.