On Thursday, the 69-year-old Parisian’s steadfast efforts over the past 45 years earned him the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature. In a sign of how effective his works have been, his 1968 “La Place de l’Etoile” was later hailed in Germany as a key post-Holocaust work.
Modiano was out for a walk on Paris’ Left Bank when he received word of his prize. “I was walking near the Luxembourg Gardens when my daughter called with the news,” Modiano said at a news conference at the offices of his French publisher Gallimard. “It came as a complete surprise, I just kept walking. It felt like it was happening to my double.”
He was at a loss when asked how he would celebrate his win. “Nothing special. I really didn’t expect this,” he said, adding that he would dedicate the prize to his grandson, who is Swedish. Academics said his appeal largely lies in the poetic nature of his texts, which doesn’t come across as well in translations, making him less well known in the English-speaking world.
The Swedish Academy said it gave him the 8 million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize for evoking “the most ungraspable human destinies” and uncovering the humanity of life under Nazi occupation. “All his books are in a sort of correspondence with each other that I think is pretty unique,” added the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Peter Englund.
Modiano has published more than 40 works in French. As with such recent Nobel winners such as Tomas Transtromer and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, Modiano is little known in the United States and other English-speaking countries. The handful of his book that are available in English translation were not released by mainstream New York publishers, but by independent and academic presses.
They include “Ring of Roads: A Novel,” ”Villa Triste,” ”A Trace of Malice,” ”Honeymoon” and “Missing Person,” which won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1978. Yale University Press quickly announced that it is moving up publication of “Suspended Sentences,” a collection of three novellas, from February to November, while publisher Godine said has ordered reprints for three Modiano books: “Catherine Certitude,” ”Honeymoon” and “Missing Person.”
Jewishness, the Nazi occupation and loss of identity are recurrent themes in his novels. “I have the impression that I’ve been writing the same book for 45 years,” Modiano said. “I’m curious to know the reasons the committee chose me,” the author added with disarming modesty. “It’s hard as a writer to have an overall vision of your own work. It’s like a painter painting a ceiling fresco; you are up too close to see the whole thing.”
Dervila Cooke of Dublin City University, author of a book about Modiano, said his works deal with the traumas of France’s past but have a “darkly humorous touch.” “His prose is crystal clear and resonant,” she said. “A common description of his work is of its ‘petite musique’ — its haunting little music.”
“His novels are rarely traditional (with) a strong storyline. It’s all about fragmentation,” added Alan Morris, a senior lecturer in French at the University of Strathclyde. Modiano was born in a west Paris suburb in July 1945, two months after World War II ended in Europe, to a father with Jewish-Italian origins and a Belgian actress mothewho met during the 1940-44 occupation of Paris.
Englund said Modiano’s works often explore the themes of time, memory and identity. “He is returning to the same topics again and again simply because these topics, you can’t exhaust them,” Englund told journalists in Stockholm. “You can’t give a definite answer to: Why did I turn into the person I am today? What happened to me? How will I break out of the weight of time? How can I reach back into past times?”