Nobel winner Patrick Modiano: Memory, identity and time

Patrick Modiano. (Facebook profile photo)

Patrick Modiano. (Facebook profile photo)

French author Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Nobel organization announced Thursday, “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” 

Modiano is a widely-published novelist, author of children’s books, and writer of film scripts. Modiano’s books tend to be short, Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, told journalist Sven Hugo Persson, “but at the same time, the composition of the novels are quite refined. They’re very elegant books.” 

Englund cited Missing Persons as a typical example of Modiano’s work: a “fun book,” he said, in which a detective who has lost his memory goes on a quest to discover his identity.

The Swedish Academy announcement, of its 111th Nobel literature prize, noted:

 Modiano’s works centre on topics such as memory, oblivion, identity and guilt. The city of Paris is often present in the text and can almost be considered a creative participant in the works. Rather often his tales are built on an autobiographical foundation, or on events that took place during the German occupation. He sometimes draws material for his works from interviews, newspaper articles or own notes which he has accumulated over the years. His novels show an affinity with one another, and it happens that earlier episodes are extended or that persons recur in different tales. The author’s home town and its history often serve to link the tales together. A work of documentary character, with World War II as background, is Dora Bruder (1997; Dora Bruder, 1999) which builds on the true tale of a fifteen-year old girl in Paris who becomes one of the victims of the Holocaust. Among the works which most clearly reveal an autobiographical character one notes Un pedigree from 2005.

Modiano was born in Paris in 1945, and published his first book in 1968. He is much-celebrated in Europe: he won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 2012; the 2010 Prix mondial Cino Del Duca from the Institut de France for lifetime achievement; the Prix Goncourt in 1978 for his Rue des boutiques obscures, and the 1972 Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française for Les Boulevards de centre, according to Wikipedia.

Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Haruki Murakami of Japan had been touted as this year’s potential winners. Recent scathing comments about the value of creative writing institutions by Englund — “the lines between literature, and “literature which has arisen as a commodity”, have been erased” while America’s lack of widely-read works from elsewhere creates “a hall of mirrors which reflects a perpetual, infinite image of America” — strongly suggested British and American authors were unlikely contenders. 

— Deborah Jones

Further reading:

The announcement by the Swedish Academy
Creative writing courses are killing western literature
, claims Nobel judge: The Guardian
A video interview, from the Nobel web site on YouTube, with Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy:



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