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.