A modern 'Proust'

In his honour

A modern 'Proust'

French writer Patrick Modiano, whose novels centre on topics like memory, identity and guilt, has the ability to evoke ‘the most ungraspable human destinies’ in his work. Alexandra Alter & Dan Bilefsky write... 

French writer Patrick Modiano is known for his moody, terse and occasionally dreamlike novels that are often set during the Nazi occupation of France.

Modiano, who has published about 30 works, including novels, children’s books and screenplays, rose to prominence in 1968 with his novel La Place de l’Étoile. Many of his fictional works are set in Paris during World War II, and some play with the detective genre. His works have been translated around the world, and about a dozen of his books have been translated into English. But he is not widely known outside France. 

In France, Modiano’s books are widely read, in part because of their pithy and compact style. In 1972, Modiano was awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prize for his novel Ring Roads, and the prestigious Prix Goncourt Prize in 1978 for Missing Person. In 1996, he won the National Literature Grand Prize for his entire work.

His most famous works include Missing Person, an existential thriller about a man who travels the world trying to piece together his identity; Dora Bruder, which investigates the disappearance of a Jewish girl in 1941; and Out of the Dark, a hallucinatory novel narrated by a middle-aged writer reflecting on an affair with a young drifter.

During a halting, nearly hourlong news conference, Modiano said he learned he had won when his daughter called him as he was walking in the street. “I was a bit surprised, so I continued walking,” he said. He said winning the prize felt “unreal” and that he vividly remembered when Camus won the Nobel for literature in 1957, and Sartre won in 1964. He also expressed puzzlement over being chosen. “I would like to know how they explained their choice,” he said. 

Troubled childhood

Nobel literature laureate is a chronicler of Paris life under the Nazi occupation whose brooding, quizzical works are haunted by the memory of a love-starved childhood.The 69-year-old married father of two has described France’s occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II as “the soil I grew up in”. Modiano was born at the end of the war on July 30, 1945 in the Paris suburb of Boulogne into a family whose complex background set the scene for a lifelong obsession with that dark period in history.

His father, Alberto Modiano, was an Italian Jew with ties to the Gestapo — and to organised crime — who was spared from wearing the yellow star. His mother was a Flemish actress named Louisa Colpeyn. The pair met in Paris in 1942.

Published when he was just 22 in 1967, his first novel, La place de l’etoile (The Star’s Place) — a direct reference to the Nazi branding of the Jews — follows a narrator named Raphael on a hallucinatory journey taking in real and fictional Jewish characters.

“Had I been born in the countryside, I would have been a pastoral writer. That would have been enough for me,” Modiano once said. “Fate determined that I was born in 1945, that I had such odd roots, and grew up without a family.”

Modiano’s many recreations of wartime Paris are stuffed with meticulous detail — street names, cafes, metro stations and real-life criminal cases of the day — earning him the moniker of literary archaeologist. While his troubled childhood has proved an endless source of material, the author says he has approached his own past like an archaeologist too. “I write these pages as you would write a resume, or an accident report, like a documentary, and probably to be done with a life that was not mine,” he once wrote.

On writing

In a 2012 interview with Le Figaro, Modiano said that he had grown more comfortable talking about himself and his books. “At the beginning, I experienced writing as a sort of constraint,” he said.

“Starting so young as a writer is pitiable, it’s beyond your powers, you have to lay bare things that are very heavy, and you don’t have the means for that. When I recently looked at my early manuscripts, I was struck by the absence of space, of breathing room.”

Asked if he felt that he had evolved as a writer, he added, “No, not really. The feeling of dissatisfaction with every book remains just as alive. I had a longtime recurring dream: I dreamed that I had nothing left to write, that I was liberated. I am not, alas. I am still trying to clear the same terrain, with the feeling that I’ll never get done.”

Modiano, speaking at the news conference, said receiving so much attention for his work after so many decades of writing in solitude seemed “a bit unreal”.

“I have always felt,” he said, “like I’ve been writing the same book for the past 45 years.”
 The New York Times (with inputs from AFP)

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