Patrick Modiano wins literature Nobel for work on Nazi occupation of France
Novelist was born in Paris two months after World War II to father with Jewish-Italian origins and Belgian actress mother who met during the occupation
STOCKHOLM — Patrick Modiano of France, who has made a lifelong study of the Nazi occupation and its effects on his country, won the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday for what one academic called “crystal clear and resonant” prose.
Modiano, a 69-year-old resident of Paris, is an acclaimed writer in France but not well known in the English-speaking world. The Swedish Academy said it gave the 8 million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize to him for evoking “the most ungraspable human destinies” and uncovering the world of life behind the Nazi occupation.
Jewishness, the Nazi occupation and loss of identity are recurrent themes in his novels, which include 1968’s “La Place de l’Etoile” — later hailed in Germany as a key post-Holocaust work.
Modiano reacted to news of his selection by calling it “weird,” according to Antoine Gallimard of the French publishing house Gallimard.
“I had Modiano on the telephone. I congratulated him and with his customary modesty he told me ‘it’s weird’, but he was very happy,” Gallimard said.
French President Francoise Hollande congratulated the French author for receiving “this eminent distinction.”
Hollande said in a statement that the prize recognizes “a considerable body of work which explores the subtleties of memory and the complexity of identity.”
“The Republic is proud of the recognition, through this Nobel prize, of one of our greatest writers. Patrick Modiano is the 15th French person to receive this eminent distinction, confirming the great influence of our literature,” he added.
Modiano’s novel “Missing Person” won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1978 and he has published more than 40 works in French. Some have been translated into English, including “Ring of Roads: A Novel,” ”Villa Triste,” ”A Trace of Malice,” and “Honeymoon.”
Dervila Cooke of Dublin City University, author of a book about Modiano, said his works dealt with the traumas of France’s past but have a “darkly humorous touch.”
“His prose is crystal clear and resonant,” she said. “A common description of his work is of its ‘petite musique’ — it’s haunting little music.”
Modiano was born in a west Paris suburb in July 1945, two months after World War II ended in Europe, to a father with Jewish-Italian origins and a Belgian actress mother who met during the occupation of Paris.
He has also written children’s books and film scripts, including co-writing the 1974 movie “Lacombe, Lucien” with director Louis Malle and the 2003 movie “Bon Voyage” with director Jean-Paul Rappeneau.
He was a member of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000 and won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 2012.
Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said Modiano’s works often explore the themes of time, memory and identity.
“He is returning to the same topics again and again simply because these topics, you can’t exhaust them,” Englund told journalists in Stockholm. “You can’t give a definite answer to: Why did I turn into the person I am today? What happened to me? How will I break out of the weight of time? How can I reach back into past times?”
Englund, who wasn’t able to reach Modiano before the announcement, said the French writer also liked to play with the detective genre. In “Missing Person,” he wrote about a private detective launching his last investigation — finding out who he is because he has lost his memory.
The Nobel judges praised Modiano for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.
“I’ve always had the wish, the nostalgia to be able to write detective novels,” Modiano said in a rare interview last week in Telerama magazine. “At heart, the principal themes of detective novels are close to the things that obsess me: disappearance, the problems of identity, amnesia, the return to an enigmatic past.”
Betting on Modiano to win the Nobel surged in the last week, raising questions about a possible leak. David Williams of bookmaker Ladbrokes said Modiano’s odds had shortened from 100-1 a few months ago to 10-1 before the announcement.
Something similar occurred the last time there was a French Nobel winner for literature, when Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio won in 2008. But Williams said the betting pattern on Modiano was not suspicious.
“We are experts in analyzing betting patterns and we kind of know what a leak looks like. This doesn’t look like a leak. It just looks like his fans got behind him and gave him a bit of momentum,” he told The Associated Press.
Englund admitted there had been a leak in 2008 when the odds for Le Clezio plummeted but insisted there was no leak this year.
“That was a leak and Ladbrokes saw that too and stopped the betting,” he said. “It was before my time but I believe we have eliminated that leak now.”
Englund noted that the writers who had the lowest odds in Nobel betting this year — including Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Japan’s Haruki Murakami and Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus — did not win.
With the choice of Modiano, the prize returned to Europe after the academy picked Canadian writer Alice Munro in 2013 and Mo Yan of China in 2012.
The Swedish Academy often chooses writers whose works are little-known to readers outside their native country, often resulting in out-of-print works returning into circulation and a sales boost.
Japan’s Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 literature winner, became a far more popular writer because of the Nobel, while Austrian Elfriede Jelinek, who won in 2004, is just slightly better known now than before she won.
This year’s Nobel Prize announcements started Monday with a U.S.-British scientist splitting the medicine prize with a Norwegian husband-and-wife team for brain research that could pave the way for a better understanding of diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Two Japanese researchers and a Japanese-born American won the physics prize Tuesday for the invention of blue light-emitting diodes, a breakthrough that spurred the development of LED as a new light source.
The chemistry prize on Wednesday went to two Americans and a German researcher who found new ways to give microscopes sharper vision, letting scientists peer into living cells with unprecedented detail to seek the roots of disease.
The announcements continue Friday with the Nobel Peace Prize and the economics award on Monday.
The awards will be presented on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.