Patrick Modiano / An appreciation of the Nobel prize in literature winner
An appreciation of the Nobel prize
in literature winner
As the French writer Patrick Modiano surprises critics to take the 2014 Nobel prize in literature, Rupert Thomson salutes an author who is fascinated by the louche, ambiguous, shadowy world of the Occupation
by Rupert Thomson The Guardian, Thursday 9 October 2014
Spare and elliptical … Patrick Modiano. Photograph: Agence VU/Camera Press
Patrick Modiano has won the Nobel prize, which is unexpected, to say the least. I have admired Modiano since my teens, when I happened on a copy of Villa Triste in the Eastbourne public library, but most British people don't seem to have heard of him, and when I last mentioned my love of his work, to a young Frenchman, I was met with a disdainful curl of the lip. "He's nostalgic," he said. This misses the point. In Modiano's books, which are often set during the Occupation, the atmospherics of nostalgia act as a servant to much deeper themes of survival and alienation. His slender masterpiece, Honeymoon, begins in a shadowy Milan hotel on a hot August afternoon. Standing at the bar, Jean B discovers that a woman he used to know took her own life in the hotel only two days before. Later, Jean goes to ground in the Parisian suburbs in an attempt to uncover the circumstances both of her death and her life. The character who vanishes is himself obsessed with a vanishing. This hall-of-mirrors effect is typical Modiano. He captures an amoral, often louche, and always ambiguous, world – a world of uncertain identities and hidden agendas. Modiano exploits all forms of genre, stealing from the spy novel and detective fiction – film noir too. But what seems to interest him most is the gaps in people's lives – the bits that have been removed or repressed, the bits that can't be accounted for. His style is so spare and elliptical that the words seem only lightly attached to the page, almost not there at all, which neatly echoes the near impossibility of what is being attempted. The case, if there is one, can never quite be solved. His books are puzzles, but they are also laments. He is meditating on the essential unknowability of others, but he is equally fascinated by the seductions and pitfalls of memory. Modiano is the poet of the Occupation and a spokesman for the disappeared, and I am thrilled that the Swedish Academy has recognised him, though I can't help wondering what that contemptuous Frenchman will be thinking.