Patrick Modiano, the French Sephardic novelist, is the first Jewish winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature since Harold Pinter in 2005, yet his work is hardly visible in the UK.
Responding to the award, the writer Ben Judah described him as “the truest writer about Jewishness in the French language”.
Born in a Paris suburb in 1945, Modiano’s father’s family originally came from Salonica and his mother was a Flemish actress. His relationship with his father, in particular, was deeply troubled. In 1968, still in his early twenties, Modiano published his first novel, La Place de l’étoile, a wartime novel about a Jewish collaborator. The title itself is a pun: a place in Paris but also the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear. In 1973 he co-wrote the screenplay of Louis Malle’s film, Lacombe, Lucien, about a French teenage boy who joins a pro-Vichy military force opposed to the Resistance. These early works announced one of his central themes: the dark side of the French occupation.
Modiano has written almost thirty novels. Les Boulevards de ceinture (1972) was awarded the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française and Rue des boutiques obscures (1978) received the prestigious Prix Goncourt. However, despite his considerable success in France only a few of his novels have been translated into English and nearly all of these have been published by small presses; though Yale University Press has just announced that a new translation of Modiano’s work is due next month. This is hardly unusual. It is hard to think of many French writers since Alain Robbe-Grillet, Georges Perec and Philippe Sollers (all born between the wars) who have much of a reputation in the English-speaking world. The days when French writers like Sartre, Anouilh, Genet and Camus were household names outside France are long past.
The Swedish Academy described Modiano as “A Marcel Proust of our time”, a reference to his central preoccupations with memory and identity. “I had the mania of looking back,” he once said, “always that feeling of something lost, not like paradise, but certainly lost.” Reviewing The Search Warrant, the critic Michael Wood wrote,“The mania for looking back is always there. His characters collect shreds of old evidence, handwriting, photographs, police files, newspaper cuttings.”
According to another critic, “Ambiguity, this is one of the characteristics of his work. There is an attempt to try and reconstruct some kind of story from the past, but it inevitably proves impossible.” Modiano himself once said, “The great, the inevitable subject of the novel, is always . . . time.”
This connects to a second crucial theme: the Second World War. Modiano’s father, Albert, survived the war as a black marketer who profited from business deals with Nazis in Paris. Modiano has returned to the dark side of France’s wartime experience again and again, in a distinctive mix of fiction, autobiography and detective fiction.
His work constantly returns to these central themes. Born in 1945, the war is a constant shadow. “Few European writers today,” writes Benjamin Ivry, “have been more consistently haunted by modern Jewish history.”
David Herman is a longtime contributor to Jewish Quarterly.