French Novelist Patrick Modiano Wins the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature

October 9, 2014 | 3 books mentioned 36 2 min read

In the type of surprise move many Nobel watchers have become accustomed to, the committee has awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature to French novelist Patrick Modiano, a writer with a deep body of work, but one who was not among the “favorites” discussed in the flurry of pre-announcement speculation.

covercovercoverModiano, 69, is best known for his Prix Goncourt-winning 1978 novel Missing Person. Publisher David R Godine calls it “a detective thriller, a 1950s film noir mix of smoky cafes, illegal passports, and insubstantial figures crossing bridges in the fog. On another level, it is also a haunting meditation on the nature of the self.” While Modiano’s novels have been published in English translations over the years, including by major publishers like Knopf, only a handful of his 25 or so books are currently in print in the U.S. These include Honeymoon and Catherine Certitude, a children’s book, illustrated by Sempe. Yale will be releasing a new edition next year that collects three Modiano novellas under the title Suspended Sentences. Update: Yale has announced that it will now publish the book in November 2014.

Here at The Millions, novelist J.P. Smith discussed reading Modiano in French:

All I knew of Modiano was that he wrote about his past and that of his parents, which was intricately bound up with the years of the German Occupation of France, a topic I was about to introduce into my own fiction. Modiano’s true subject, I discovered, is the nature of identity and memory as it’s distilled through the past—in itself a Proustian conceit—and what I find fascinating about him is that his many novels, which take up a good portion of a bookshelf, in a way are like individual chapters of one book. His theme is unchanging; his style, “la petite musique,” as the French say, is virtually the same from book to book. There is nothing “big” about his work, and readers have grown accustomed to considering each succeeding volume as an added chapter to an ongoing literary project. His twenty-five published novels rarely are longer than 200 pages, and in them his characters, who seem to drift, under different names, into first this novel, then another, wander the streets of Paris looking for a familiar place, a remembered face, some link to their elusive past, some ghost from a half-remembered encounter that might shed some light on one’s history. Phone numbers and addresses are dredged up from the past, only to bring more cryptic clues and, if not dead ends, then the kind of silence that hides a deeper and more painful truth.

You open the latest Modiano and you know exactly where you are. The writer is artistically all of a piece. It’s his obsession with memory and the haunted lives of his protagonists which truly caught my attention, and especially how he returns time and again to mine this subject. As someone with a very broken chronology, with a memory of childhood that is in many ways unreliable (how much has been planted there? How much of it is real? What’s been removed by doubt or by someone else’s will?), I saw in Modiano how the capriciousness of memory can in itself become the subject of a novel. And because back then I found plot a troublesome thing to handle in my fiction, the idea of creating a narrator in search of a story became the basis for my first novel. I sent Modiano a copy of it when it was published and, not surprisingly, heard nothing back.

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  1. This strikes me as another example of mediocrity rising to the top. I watched the live broadcast of the announcement this morning, and thought that the silence of the Swedish crowd at the announcement spoke volumes. As I tried to ague the other day on another posting, the Swedish Academy’s track record over the past one hundred plus years has not been that good. Occasionally they get it right, but often they have momentarily plucked someone from obscurity–and then a few years later, they’ve become obscure and unread again. I am certainly chortling in my morning coffee today, and plan to go back to reading my non-Nobel laureates–Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Tolstoy, Ford Maddox Ford.

  2. … and Joyce and, apparantly, Phillip Roth. I can’t comment on a writer I haven’t read, but the transparent agenda in the selections is frustrating. You almost expect them t announce the winner as “not an American!” to rapturous applause.

  3. Maybe the above responders, to clarify their feelings, could share with the readers of this thread, brief comments on the Modiano’s they’ve read. That would be helpful.

  4. I believe Jane is implying that people are making negative comments about the Nobel choice without having read the author’s works. But, even more importantly, if he was awarded the Nobel, then why isn’t he better known to us? Being a writer from a foreign country does not preclude one from becoming recognized.

  5. To Jack M

    In your comment, what “us” do you mean? English only readers? To check his “recognition” in non-English reading countries look at the listings for Modiano on, Amazon de, Amazon it. to get an idea of what’s available to readers in those languages. Once again, because of the dearth of foreign books translated into English, English only readers are missing out on a lot, as this Nobel shows.

  6. “You almost expect them t announce the winner as “not an American!” to rapturous applause.”

    Good God. USA isn’t the center of the literary universe, you know.

    “This strikes me as another example of mediocrity rising to the top.”

    This strikes me as another example of a non-American rising to the top.

    “often they have momentarily plucked someone from obscurity–and then a few years later, they’ve become obscure and unread again.”

    At least be honest about it: Often they’ve momentarily plucked someone I’ve never heard of, and then a few years later, I still haven’t read them, which is all the proof you need that the Nobel sucks.

    The main thing to be learned from the Nobel these days is that there is a serious lack of translated fiction in this country.

  7. In my thirty years of reading lit crit I have never heard Modiano mentioned ONCE as a writer of note. He seems to me nothing more than a journeymen cranking out mediocre middlebrow fiction. I find this choice perplexing and smacking of the basest form of cronyism.

  8. If this means anything to the writers above, I’ve just listened to an interview with Patrick Modiano on France 2. He doesn’t know why he won the Nobel either.

  9. I’ve never heard of Modiano. Therefore, he sucks and the Nobel is a conspiracy.

    Philip Roth should get the Nobel every year.

  10. Patrick Modiano is a writer of noir, genre fiction, the detective story. There is nothing wrong with that, it just hardly seems like the tradition that the Nobel would honor, even if, as Peter Englund, the Nobel secretary states, it is done with a twist. Of course, this is not the first controversial choice the Swedish Academy has made. As I said in my first post, I watched the webcast of the announcement. Usually, the crowd makes some kind of reaction, especially if they agree. Today, it was total silence. I don’t think this choice is sitting too well.

    Now, if you look back at the long list of winners, you really will see a lot of names that you will not recognize–Mommsen, Rolland, Pontoppidan, etc. They have made some great choices–Faulkner became a laureate when he was pretty much unknown and all his books out of print. A very inspired choice. Patrick White is one of the greatest writers of the century–unfortunately, most of his books are out of print at the moment. Nadine Gordimer, Coetzee, Naipaul, Mario Vargas Llosa, several others who were inspired choices, very deserving. In my mind, a writer of noir and detective stories is hardly Nobel worthy. However, it is not my decision, nor is it my money–they can choose to spend/waste how they want. Just don’t expect me to respect that decision. If they wanted to recognize a Francophone writer, great–Assia Djebar probably would have been a better choice. Or some of the Francophone writers of Sub-Saharan Africa. I’m sure that there are great Francophone writers in Quebec. I’m just saying that there were other, better choices.

    As an aside, and now that I’m thinking about it, Graham Greene wrote some similar books. He called them “entertainments.” He was not a Nobel laureate either. It is rather curious that Modiano is recognized for his genre writings and Greene was not. I do rather have to agree, though, that the Nobel does seem to becoming rather a joke when you get laureates like this.

  11. Jane, I agree that novels that have not been translated into English lack the exposure they deserve, but that is not my point. By “us” I mean any reader who is able to read the author’s works, regardless of the language.

    I read many novels in English translation, and am thus familiar with many foreign author’s works. My point was simply that, as an avid reader, I should at least have a passing familiarity with a Nobel Prize winner. It’s just my opinion.

  12. To me the Nobel has always been – and I know this is going to sound rather crass – kind of like a Hall of Fame induction for a specific writer, a way of saying, “Because of your work you have now entered the Pantheon.” All I will say is that there are plenty of writers alive today – men and women, American, Asian, African, European, Middle Eastern – who should be given this highest of honors, and to give it to someone like Modiano lessens the award, makes it almost irrelevant, on par with any of the other countless literary awards that are given out every year. Modiano is a fine writer, but I didn’t think that is what the Nobel was for, for fine writing. I thought it was for transcendent writing. If there is anyone out there – besides the dullards who currently make up the Nobel committee – who thinks Modiano is a transcendent writer, please, explain to me why he is.

  13. I have never read Modiano, or even heard of him. Tranströmer, Müller, Le Clézio, Pamuk, Jelinek, Kertész, and Xingjian, on the other hand, are names we are all well acquainted with thereby proving this an unusual and outrageous selection. What a shocking deviation from history.

  14. Jane Stivarius: Maybe the above responders, to clarify their feelings, could share with the readers of this thread, brief comments on the Modiano’s they’ve read. That would be helpful…..

    As one of the three people who posted before you, I assume you are including me in your remark. In my case, I clearly stated I couldn’t comment on a writer I haven’t read. I know nothing about him. I will read him, but I was commenting on the clear agenda… which leads to my next response…

    Ed Bast: USA isn’t the center of the literary universe, you know.

    I wasn’t aware that I claimed it was.

    What I am claiming is that the choices made by the Swedish Academy seem increasing driven by an agenda, not by literary quality. Roth – and I assume you’re not arguing he’s not worthy, because that’s another story – loses out on two counts. They don’t want to give “insular, inward looking” US writers the award (never mind that they give it to insular, inward looking writers from other countries and the the criticism is wrong in the first place) and the fashinable, innacurate claim about his misogyny.

    That aside, there seems to be a determined “not an American” school within the Swedish Academy and I find that frustrating.

  15. @Tony M
    “What I am claiming is that the choices made by the Swedish Academy seem increasing driven by an agenda, not by literary quality.”

    The Swedish Academy does have an agenda that goes beyond “literary quality”. Their agenda is to award the author who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. In any case, the US still has the second most Nobel laureates in literature (11), and yet you don’t hear anyone whining about China (2) or Japan (2) or India (1) or Mexico (1) being discriminated against, let alone literature producing countries that have never been recognized.

    This is because Americans think they are the greatest, as Engdahl, who called the US “isolated” and “insular” in the first place (not their writers–the country itself), well knows:

    “Everyone reacted as if I’d said that the major American writers had no chance of winning the Nobel. I said nothing of the sort; I didn’t say that there were no worthy American writers. I said that American literary life, American criticism and teaching were limited today by too narrow an access to world literature, because the number of translations and their reach in the US is feeble. Everything is focused around their [US] writers and their language, like a hall of mirrors which reflects a perpetual, infinite image of America.”

  16. Don’t you think these big awards are mostly popularity contests for the literati — with just about as much meaning? Sometimes, the teeny committee of subjective judges makes inspired choices, as several posters mentioned above, and sometimes — not so much.

    Writers must ache to win — the increased readership, sales and, hey, cash money are very juicy — but I would argue that the choice rarely reflects Ulimate Quality (is there such a thing?) Can one book out of thousands really represent THE BEST in any given year? Is there a Socratic Ideal of the novel ? God, I hope not! But if there is I’m voting Austen all the way. Which will enrage the Houllebecqians who will piss off the Tolstoyans, not to mention the DFWers and on and on.

    This stuff is fun to argue about ( love the discussions here) but prizes don’t really tell us anything beyond the opinions of a few people in a given year.

  17. What timble said.

    “This is because Americans think they are the greatest”

    For proof of this, re-read this comment section.

  18. Authors that should have won the Nobel Prize, based off the following books (no order):

    – Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater
    – Antonio Lobo Antunes, the Inquisitors’ Manual
    – Procopius, The Secret History
    – Cormac McCarthy, The Secret
    – Every Swede Ever
    – Thomas Mann, I Fucking Love Joe Biden’s Bold-Ass Attitude
    – A Monkey Wrench, Adjustable PVC Pipe
    – James Joyce, Whatever
    – Decades Worth of Bad Decisions, the Bees-in-Hives
    – Thomas Pynchon, Everything
    – Thomas Bernhard, He’s Dead
    – People named Thomas
    – Gwyneth Palrow
    – The Guy Who Wrote “Chinatown”
    – I forget what we were talking about
    – Bruce Springsteen
    – Philip Roth, “Everybody Dance Now”

  19. Oh, trust me timble. I made a very conscious decision TO leave it out. And I’m not afraid to admit that shit.

  20. I think the truest comments in this intriguing conversation came from Ed Bast and Priskill. Said the former, “The main thing to be learned about the Nobel these days is that there is a serious lack of translated fiction in this country.” I learned about this year’s prize on Thursday morning when I looked through the window of a bookstore in Cologne, Germany and saw the words “Literaturnobelpreis – Patrick Modiano” above a display of a dozen of his books in their French original and in German translation (none in English). Inside the store I asked a clerk if she had read Modiano, and she said (in English), “Oh yes, he’s quite good.” I confessed that even though I’m a writer I had never heard of the man. Back out on the street I fell into conversation with a fellow customer, who recommended Modiano’s first novel, “La Place de l’Etoile.” Only later did I learn that it’s nearly impossible to find copies of Modiano’s books translated into English.

    Said Priskill,”Prizes don’t really tell us anything beyond the opinions of a few people in a given year.” Amen! So let’s all get rid of the fantasy that a Nobel (or an Oscar or a Tony) is objective, accurate and fair recognition of artistic achievement. If prizes sell books (or movie or theater tickets), they’ve accomplished something worthwhile. Here’s hoping Modiano’s Nobel spurs American publishers to translate more of the world’s great literature into English so that we American readers don’t remain where we so often are – in the dark.

  21. Bill

    You seem to be suggesting there is a robust literary culture outside of the US…what a concept!

    Also, it seems that people who have actually read Modiano have a much kinder opinion of his work than the folks around here who haven’t. interesting. Was the clerk somehow unaware that Modiano writes “genre fiction”?

  22. What Bill Morris Said.

    As for the claims Modiano writes detective fiction, my impression is that he uses elements of detective fiction but that his books lack the payoffs that fans of the genre want — a solution to a crime, tidy resolution, etc. I’m eager to read a couple of his novels, in part to find out if that’s correct.

  23. I don’t know anything about Modiano and haven’t read any of his work, so I have no opinion on this selection.

    I do hope the committee eventually comes around and gives Roth and McCarthy their due. I think we’ll be lucky if even one of them gets honored.

  24. Everytime I see an author’s work is a “meditation on the nature of THE SELF”, all I hear is, “This writer has nothing to say about anything that actually matters.” Can we please stop with these navel-gazing “examinations” of THE SELF? Please?

  25. Like I’ve said before, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman would be fantastic, daring, and altogether worthy choices among English language writers. If only the Academy knew a thing about literature outside the realist tradition. Indeed, they have stepped outside on occasion, but those picks have typically been the exceptions.

  26. I’m sure the people of France last year were like, “Alice Munro, right! She is aces, I love her!”

    Ask 100 literature experts from 100 countries to name their choice for next Nobel Prize winner and you might get 100 different answers. There’s no science to it.

    Even if one suggested that only 25 countries contribute significantly to the world canon, that would still mean Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy are in a queue with no fewer than 48 other equally deserving candidates – a 2% chance of winning. If 25 is ludicrously low – and it surely is – then the queue and the odds are that much longer.

    On top of that, what percentage of qualified American assessors would agree that Roth and McCarthy are America’s living best? Not a plurality I’m guessing. Maybe not even 10%. The Nobel Prize needs not be especially political – it needs only to be routinely political – to yield unpredictable results.

  27. If you don’t like (or haven’t even read) many/most of the prior choices, then why would you want your favored writer to be placed among them? Why would you think it prestigious if you don’t even like the stuff? It’s like hating sports, never watching a game all season, and then complaining about who wins MVP.

  28. Keep in mind the effect a translator can have on our reading. I don’t know Modiano, but I’ve read that his style is sometimes poetic and difficult to translate, so until more English translations are available (if we don’t read French), our view of his work might be wrong.

    Murakami wrote an interesting piece on this — the preface to his rendition of “The Great Gatsby” — in which he wonders if the book’s unpopularity in Japan is due to its prosaic translations. With novels like “Gatsby,” the music of the language is key.

  29. Simply because you haven’t heard of Mondiano doesn’t imply he isn’t a writer worthy of international reknown. It’s pretty provincial to assume that simply because somebody isn’t famous in the U.S. means he doesn’t deserve the Nobel.

    Alain Mabanckou isn’t so well-known in the U.S, and not all of his oeuvre has been translated into English. I find him to be one of the most vital around.

    Really, there are so many writers out there in the whole wide world. If you cannot read in foreign languages, try to seek out more works in translation.

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