The Nobel Committee has announced its pick for the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, and the winner is Patrick Modiano. Not familiar with the French novelist? You’re not alone; Modiano’s celebrity is far more modest than that of fellow candidate Haruki Murakami, as well as last year’s winner, Alice Munro. Yet he is referred to by the Swedish Academy as “the Marcel Proust of our time.”
Modiano’s life began at the end of the darkest time in modern European history, and it is to that his writing always returns. He was born in 1945 to a Jewish French father, Albert Modiano, and a Belgian mother, Louisa Colpijn, an actress. The two met in Nazi-occupied Paris, during which time Albert engaged in some “shady” dealings.
Throughout Modiano’s childhood his father was a mostly absent figure, and the young Patrick learned most of what he knew about Albert from the troubling stories of the occupation years passed down to him. Modiano admits it’s because of this history that his novels focus on the shameful period of the Occupation:
“After each novel, I have the impression that I have cleared it all away… But I know I’ll come back over and over again to tiny details, little things that are part of what I am. In the end, we are all determined by the place and the time in which we were born.”
From this history Modiano has crafted more than forty works, the most famous of which is 1968’s La Place de l’Etoile, a key post-Holocaust work. His novels predominately share the theme of predestination – how we are determined by the traces of our past – and the loss of identity. Peter Englund of the Swedish Academy said that one of the most important questions Modiano’s works ask is, “How will I break out of the weight of time?”
In its announcement of the award, the Nobel Committee also remarked on Modiano’s “art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”
Though the win was unexpected (only three days prior the odds were in favor of three other candidates), clearly the dark horse Modiano is an author Anglo-American readers should begin to take notice of, if only to hear the “petite musique” of his prose firsthand – its haunting little music.
Find out more about Patrick Modiano via eNotes’ biography here.