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Profile of Nobel prize-winning author Patrick Modiano

Bettianne Flanders
October 9, 2014

Little known beyond France, the publicity-shunning writer is being compared by the Swedish Academy to Marcel Proust.

2014 Nobel Prize for literature Patrick Modiano
Image: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

The Swedish Academy awarded Patrick Modiano the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, which includes a cash prize of 8 million Swedish crowns ($1.1 million), "for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation."

In response, Author Modiano said that he is dedicating the win to his Swedish grandson. The award, he said, feels unreal when he considers previous laureates. "I can’t wait to hear the reasons for choosing me," he said during a press conference.

Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, dubbed Modiano "the Proust of our time." Both Frenchmen, both born into times of war and starting their writing careers at a young age, Patrick Modiano and Marcel Proust share a number of similarities.

Modiano's works focus on fictional versions of himself and of the world in which he lives. In a rare 2011 interview with France Today, he stated, "I prefer not to read my early books. Not that I don't like them, but I don't recognize myself anymore."

2014 Nobel Prize for literature Patrick Modiano book cover Der Horizont
Memories of a lost love: Modiano's recent novel has been published also in the German translationImage: Hanser Verlag

Not the first prize

While many of his roughly 30 novels have been translated into German, only five have appeared in English. In the same interview Modiano said, "I do read English pretty well, but I can't speak it. It is difficult for me."

Probably the most prestigious distinction, the Nobel Prize for Literature will take its place among a long list of awards for the author, including the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, the Prix Goncourt, the Grand prix de roman de l'Académie française and the Prix Mondial Cino Del Duca, a lifetime achievement award from the Institut de France.

The 15th Frenchman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Modiano "takes his readers right to the deep trouble of the occupation’s dark period," said French President Francois Hollande, referring to the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. "And he tries to understand how the events lead individuals to lose, as well as find, themselves."

A life in letters

Born in 1945, Modiano's early life was shaped by the wars of the time and the loss of his only brother. His parents met during the Occupation, his mother a Belgian actress who went by the stage name Louisa Colpeyn, his father a Jewish Italian who had been a shop owner before the war. They lived in the same house but led separate lives, leaving Modiano to fend for himself much of the time. The death of the writer's younger brother Rudy at age ten from leukemia shaped several of his early works.

It was renowned author Raymond Queneau, a friend of Modiano’s mother and the young man's math tutor, who recognized the boy's potential as a writer. Queneau introduced Modiano into literary circles. His first work, "La Place de l'Etoile," centered around a wartime Jewish collaborator. After publication his father was so displeased with the story that he tried to buy and destroy all the existing copies.

From the moment Modiano wrote that first novel, he has only held a single occupation, that of writer, once saying, "I never thought of doing anything else."

Publicity-shy author

When he married Dominique Zehrfuss in 1970, the only person to own a camera forgot the film. The only existing wedding photo was taken from behind and under an umbrella. This story has been seen as a symbol of how the author, who rarely gives interviews, has lived his public life.

When Modiano spoke with France Today in 2011, he had recently visited Berlin, where he set his 2013 novel "Der Horizont." Discussing his personal journey through the city, he explained, "Its long, geometric avenues bear the marks of history. But if you look at it right, you can still spot ancient wastelands beneath the concrete. These are the very roots of my generation."

In a recent interview with Telerama Magazine, Modiano discussed his choice to write a detective-themed novel - a departure from his traditionally war-themed books. "At heart, the principal themes of detective novels are close to the things that obsess me: disappearance, the problems of identity, amnesia, the return to an enigmatic past."

2014 Nobel Prize for literature Patrick Modiano
Diligent author of the art of memory: Modiano has penned around thirty booksImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Le Parisien Frédéric Dugit

Influence on contemporary culture

Modiano's words, rooted in his own generation, have had a lasting effect on hearts and minds of those who came after. Singer/songwriter Vincent Deler created a musical tribute to the author entitled "Le Baiser Modiano," telling a story about an evening out on the town.

Modiano also has a history in film with nine writing credits, one acting credit and a spot on the jury panel of the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.