The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature goes to Patrick Modiano (who’s a bit of a crime writer)

The winner of the 2014 Novel Prize for Literature was announced yesterday. He is French writer Patrick Modiano, who appears to be extremely well known at home, but less so internationally, although some of his works have been translated into English down the years, and have won acclaim in Germany for their engagement with the wartime past.

Patrick Modiano

I’ve not read any of Modiano’s works, but am keen to do so for two reasons. Firstly, he’s of Jewish-Italian, Belgian and French extraction, and much of his writing focuses on the German Occupation of France (1940-44) and the themes of history, memory, identity and guilt.

Secondly, he’s the author of an intriguing, off-beat crime novel, entitled Rue des Boutiques Obscures (the street of shadowy shops), which was published in 1978 and received the Prix Goncourt, France’s premier literary prize, the same year.

The novel was translated into English by Daniel Weissbort, published by Jonathan Cape in 1980, and republished by Verba Mundi in 2004. Here’s the blurb from the back cover of the latter:

>> In this strange, elegant novel, Patrick Modiano portrays a man in pursuit of the identity he lost in the murky days of the Paris Occupation, the black hole of French memory.

For ten years, Guy Roland has lived without a past. His current life and name were given to him by his recently retired boss, Hutte, who welcomed him, a one-time client, into his detective agency. Guy makes full use of Hutte’s files – directories, yearbooks, and papers of all kinds going back half a century – but his leads are few. Could he really be the person in that photograph, a young man remembered by some as a South American attaché? Or was he someone else, perhaps the disappeared scion of a prominent local family? He interviews strangers and is tantalized by half-clues until, at last, he grasps a thread that leads him through the maze of his own repressed experience.

On one level Missing Person is a detective thriller, a 1950s film-noir mix of smoky cafés, 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. Modiano’s sparce, hypnotic prose, superbly translated by Daniel Weissbort, draws his readers into the intoxication of a rare literary experience. <<

An amnesiac detective investigating his own identity and past in a post-war Parisian setting. Mmmmm, yes please!

See also: ‘Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano hailed as modern Marcel Proust’The Guardian, Thursday 9 October.

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29 thoughts on “The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature goes to Patrick Modiano (who’s a bit of a crime writer)

  1. Thanks for posting about Modiano, MrsP. I read the novel titled Dora Bruder, at least that’s what it was called in the 90’s – it struck me very deeply. So much so I tried to follow Dora Bruder’s footsteps in Paris as the author did…quite amazing. Been years so need to re-read.

    • I feel a bit sheepish about not having read any of his works and aim to make up for lost time now. Dora Bruder is mentioned in quite a few of the articles on the win, and sounds like a must-read. I’ve also read that a closely observed Paris is characteristic of his works – is that right?

    • I’m not familiar with his work either, Margot. I’ll have to ask my French colleagues how well his novels are known outside of France. It sounds like he’s not been picked up by the international markets in quite the same way as some other European writers. On the plus side, it means a whole new oeuvre to explore!

  2. He says that most novelists write the same novel again and again, and that he himself is always examining the notion of identity, of the missing, of unreliable memories… I’ve read La Petite Bijou – in which a woman searches for her missing mother (who abandoned her), so there is always an element of mystery in his work. Definitely worth exploring further!

    • He sounds like such an interesting writer, MarinaSofia. And I think he has a point about writers having signature themes that they explore again and again (although there are some writers who always surprise me, like Michael Chabon). I’m particularly keen to find out how he writes on memory, especially in wartime and post-1945 contexts.

  3. Fascinating information about Modiano! I do hope that many more of this novels will be translated into English AND published in the U.S. I think it’s highly likely. I’m going to be searching for those novels already available. Thanks for the post!
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

  4. Like you, I haven’t read any of his works. Those I know who have speak positively of his works. If nothing else, they’re short and sampling one/them takes little time.

  5. I haven’t heard of this writer, but will investigate further. You had me at “amnesiac detective investigating his own identity and past in a post-war Parisian setting.” Yes, indeed.

    • Can’t wait to get my hands on it, Kathy! It sounds very intriguing. I think there may be others that work with a similar idea. The film Momento (2000) popped into my head, which features a kind of detective (an insurance investigator) who has lost his memory and is trying to figure out his past.

  6. I’ve seen Momento, which is a real brain twister just to follow what’s happening to the main character. I just saw a movie ID:A which is about a woman amnesiac trying to figure out how she arrived in her current state. It’s OK, don’t rush to see it.
    My library doesn’t have this book. Rather, it has one copy which is missing! There are 142 holds on it. I wrote to the administrators pleading for the library to buy this book, and said “This is a Novel Prize winning author!”

    • Oh that’s just brilliant, Kathy. Missing Person is missing! I hope the library administrators listen to your plea. I’m sure the Nobel Prize will help 🙂

  7. We actually read this book in our reading group earlier this year. It is short and the language is fairly straightforward so I managed to read it in French, which I recommend. I don’t think it’s a great translation. Yes, it is strangely haunting. Ii is perhaps not really a crime novel.

    • How interesting, Chrissie. Yes, I can see that it’s not a crime novel in the traditional sense – more of an off-beat investigation into identity using some of the conventions of crime. I’m sure it’ll be a worthwhile read though – I like literary crime and hybrid crime a lot.

  8. It seems he meets the first requirement to win the Noble, rather obscure, but it seems not the second, appears he might be readable!! Or is it just me being cynical!
    The book you mentioned is number 1 in Amazons thriller section! Wonder what he thinks of that!
    Nottingham library service do have 7 books by him, all in French, including this one, should’ve kept
    up the French lessons, & the Swedish & Italian!

  9. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of him previous to his Nobel Prize win, neither do any of his work ring a bell, probably because they haven’t been translated into Spanish by a big publisher and, as a consequence, haven’t had much exposure. But, if you are a fan, we’ll more than likely have time to discuss him 😉

    • Hopefully Elena. I’m really intrigued by this author, especially as so little seems to be known about him in many countries. Clearly a hidden gem and I’m looking forward to exploring his work. Interesting too, that our lack of knowledge illuminates the huge power of publishers and market forces. How many other interesting writers are there that we know nothing about? Hats off to the Nobel jury for bringing PM to wider attention.

      • I know! I have to say I’m not really into French literature, so I wasn’t surprised I didn’t know about him. But my Twitter feed went crazy a few days ago. Apparently, they’re reissuing his works in the USA.

  10. Late to the party, as ever, Missus! I was thrilled to hear Patrick Modiano had won. He’s a terrific writer.
    Do try ‘La Rue des Boutiques Obscures’. I cannot recommend it highly enough: I read it not long after it was published, and it still resonates. It is a mystery, but also has the dimensions of a classic quest combined with a very modern need to connect with a lost parent. And much, much more … It is beautifully written (I am assuming you can read French, as I don’t know anything about the translation into English of this work).
    Incidentally, PM a close friend of Françoise Hardy, and features quite heavily in her autobiog. ‘Le Désespoir des Singes et autres Bagatelles’, in which some of his letters and cartoons addressed to FH are published.

    • Better late than never, Minnie (and actually one of the nice things about a blog is that you’re never too late).

      Thanks so much for providing this extra context to Modiano’s work. You’ve also now truly whetted my appetite for the novel. I’m not sure my French is good enough to read in the original, so I’ll start with the translation and see how things go from there. Merci!

  11. PS PM is extremely well-known in France, and justly celebrated! IME the French tend not to be fickle when it comes to their stars, in any sphere: once a star, always a star. Les Anglo-Saxons, however …

    • Interesting, thanks. I’d assumed Modiano was pretty well-known, but good to hear he’s properly celebrated at home. An oddity that his reputation hadn’t led him to becoming better known beyond France before this point, but hopefully that will change.

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