Patrick Modiano wins the literature Nobel; English-language readers react with confusion

October 9, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Dora_Bruder_Patrick_ModianoIf my Twitter feed is any indication, I have something in common with the vast majority of English-language readers in North America: prior to this morning, I had never heard of Patrick Modiano. Today, the Swedish Academy announced that Modiano is the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature. The eleventh French writer to win the prize, Modiano is virtually unknown outside France. Inside France, it would seem, Modiano is something of a celebrity. Writing in France Today in 2011, Julien Bisson calls the novelist “the greatest French writer alive” and says that Modiano is among “the few French writers to achieve both critical and public success.”

The official Nobel press release indicates that the award – worth the equivalent of more than $1 million – was bestowed upon Modiano “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies.”

Born in 1945 in a suburb of Paris, Modiano won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1978 for his novel Rue des boutiques obscures. He has written about the Jewish experience in the Second World War, but most reports talk about his flirtations with the detective genre and his focus on memory as a theme. In the London Review of Books, Michael Wood writes:

Modiano says that like every other novelist he is always writing the same book, “on fait toujours le même roman.” Modiano more than most, perhaps. The mania for looking back is always there. His characters collect shreds of old evidence, handwriting, photographs, police files, newspaper cuttings. They follow the footsteps of vanished people, snooping on the world of others like unemployed private detectives who can’t find anything else to do. They have what I take to be Modiano’s own interest in Paris streets, particularly those of the outskirts, and they ceaselessly list addresses, consult old directories, make calls to telephone numbers no longer in service. His narrators are often given pieces of Modiano’s own identity, his age, his parents, his incomplete schooling, and sometimes his career – the narrator of Dora Bruder, for instance, has written Modiano’s books. But then presumably much of Modiano’s actual identity is also left out. These are versions of the author, reminders that we and he are historical beings, not attempts at confession or exorcism.

The Guardian quotes the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Peter Englund, as saying that Modiano writes “small books, 130, 150 pages, which are always variations of the same theme – memory, loss, identity, seeking. Those are his important themes: memory, identity, and time.”

Though not well known outside Europe, Modiano has been translated into English. Constance Markey calls Modiano’s novel Honeymoon, translated by Barbara Wright, “a poignant commentary on the fragility of human existence.” English writer Rupert Thomson refers to Honeymoon as “a conundrum and a lament” and says that “Modiano conjures up a world so delicate and elliptical, so fraught with uncertainty.”

Next April, Yale University Press will publish three of Modiano’s novellas, translated by Mark Polizzotti, under the title Suspended Sentences.

Notwithstanding the bigger names that had been bandied about as contenders for this year’s prize – among them Haruki Murakami or, again, Philip Roth – one of the most interesting results of the announcement has been the surprise among English-language readers on social media, most of whom, as Mark Medley pointed out, responded “with some variation of, ‘Who?'” This was much the same response that greeted the news that Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer had won the prize in 2011.

This brazen astonishment and almost proudly defiant ignorance of world literature should not be celebrated; it testifies to a shocking provincialism that refuses to look outside one’s own borders for entertainment or enlightenment. We all know Murakami – who is an international literary rock star – but how many North American readers have dipped into the more obscure translated material published by, say, New York Review Books or Europa Editions? (Elena Ferrante, the newly minted international literary rock star, doesn’t count.)

Sure, we’re aware of Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø, and a lot of people read the English versions of The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules and The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, though in those cases readers could be forgiven for not even knowing they were encountering works in translation, since the translators’ names are not usually listed on the books’ front covers. (This is a sneaky move on the part of publishers, akin to film studios that leave out the dialogue in foreign-movie trailers, to fool people into going to films with subtitles.)

But there continues to be a persistent and maddening aversion among English-language readers in North America to reading works in translation, or works that originate outside one of the “ABC” countries (America, Britain, and Canada). Readers steeped in a diet of American middlebrow or young adult literature are highly reluctant to seek out writing from places like Latin America, Russia, West Africa, or the Arabian Peninsula; it’s no wonder none of us (and here I include myself) had ever heard of “the greatest French writer alive.”

In the wake of today’s Nobel announcement, Groundwood Books publisher Sheila Barry tweeted, “English speakers could start demanding more books in translation. It’s a big world out there, and we don’t read enough of it.” Were we to do so, we’d not only be more cosmopolitan and knowledgeable about the world, but we might not have to scratch our heads and collectively ask “Who?” the next time someone outside our pinched little frame of notice wins one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes.

We all live in Alice Munro Country

October 10, 2013 by · 3 Comments 

Alice_MunroShe has been called “our Chekhov,” and is routinely cited as one of the greatest living English-language writers. She has won three Governor General’s Literary Awards for fiction, two Scotiabank Giller Prizes, two O. Henry Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Malmud Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. “Among writers themselves,” said Margaret Atwood, “her name is spoken in hushed tones.”

Today, those tones will be anything but hushed.

This morning, Alice Munro became the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and only the thirteenth woman out of 110 laureates. In a brief statement, the Swedish Academy calls Munro “a master of the contemporary short story.”

While the reaction from observers is likely to be raucous, the author’s own response was typically gracious and understated. A Canadian Press story in The Globe and Mail quotes Munro as saying she is “amazed and very grateful.” Also typically, Munro goes on to shift the focus off herself: “I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians. I’m happy, too, that this will bring more attention to Canadian writing.”

Munro has been a perennial favourite to win the Nobel, and this year the betting house Ladbrokes ranked her second in odds, after Haruki Murakami.

Although the 82-year-old Ontario author has been remarkably consistent in her themes over the course of a career that spans four-and-a-half decades and fourteen books (excluding anthologies and best-of retrospectives), she has not remained stagnant as a writer. In a Quill & Quire review of her latest collection, Dear Life (2012), James Grainger points out:

Critics have been saying for so long that a typical Alice Munro story is as rich and textured as any novel that they seem not to have noticed that her recent stories don’t resemble novels much at all. Beginning (roughly) with Runaway (2004) and continuing through to Too Much Happiness (2009), Munro has gradually shifted away from the complex, oblique narratives and intricately layered portraiture of her mid-career work toward a pared-down, almost expressionistic form of storytelling.

Yet her subjects have remained the same: sexual politics, domestic violence – physical and, more often, psychological – and self-awareness in the lives of girls and women. “‘Dreariness of spirit’ is one of the great Munro enemies,” Atwood writes in the introduction to the 2009 volume My Best Stories:

Her characters do battle with it in every way they can, fighting against stifling mores and other people’s deadening expectations and imposed rules of behaviour, and every possible kind of muffling and spiritual smothering. Given a choice between being a person who does good works but has inauthentic feelings and is numb at heart and one who behaves badly but is true to what she really feels and is thus alive to herself, a Munro woman is likely to choose the latter; or, if she chooses the former, she will then comment on her own slipperiness, guile, wiliness, slyness, and perversity.

Quoted on the website NDTV, Munro herself claims, “There are no such things as big and little subjects. The major things, the evils, that exist in the world have a direct relationship to the evil that exists around a dining room table when people are doing things to each other.”

In an interview with The Paris Review, Munro talks about the influence of Southern American writers on her own sensibility:

The writers of the American South were the first writers who really moved me because they showed me that you could write about small towns, rural people, and that kind of life I knew very well. But the thing about the Southern writers that interested me, without my being really aware of it, was that all the Southern writers whom I really loved were women. I didn’t really like Faulkner that much. I loved Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers. There was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal.

Munro has, over the course of a truly remarkable career, incorporated that influence, and also transcended it. Her stories rank as some of the most subtle, provocative work produced not just in Canada, but internationally in the past forty years. Previous recent choices of Nobel laureates have caused controversy, but it is difficult to imagine anyone with knowledge of world literature arguing seriously that Alice Munro is undeserving of the honour.

The term “Alice Munro Country” is typically applied to a small patch of land in rural Ontario; today, the Swedish Academy has ensured that designation has a much broader connotation. We all live in Alice Munro Country. And we are all immeasurably better for it.


I had come to Victoria because it was the farthest place I could get to from London, Ontario, without going out of the country. In London, my husband, Donald, and I had rented a basement apartment in our house to a couple named Nelson and Sylvia. Nelson was an English major at the university and Sylvia was a nurse. Donald was a dermatologist, and I was doing a thesis on Mary Shelley – not very quickly. I had met Donald when I went to see him about a rash on my neck. He was eight years older than I was – a tall, freckled, blushing man, cleverer than he looked. A dermatologist sees grief and despair, though the problems that bring people to him may not be in the same class as tumors and blocked arteries. He sees sabotage from within, and truly unlucky fate. He sees how matters like love and happiness can be governed by a patch of riled-up cells. Experience of this sort had made Donald kind, in a cautious, impersonal way. He said that my rash was probably due to stress, and that he could see I was going to be a wonderful woman, once I got a few problems under control.

– “The Albanian Virgin,” by 2013 Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro

UPDATE: I’ve been taking some heat on social media for stating that Munro is the first Canadian Nobel laureate, since Saul Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec. For the record: I have never considered Bellow a Canadian author. He was raised and educated in the U.S., did all of his writing there, and is most closely associated with Chicago. He considered himself an American writer, as do I. But, for those who wish to argue, I acknowledge his place of birth as Canada, and have amended the above post accordingly.