Laureate

Who the Hell Is Patrick Modiano?

Once again, the Nobel committee flummoxed the odds makers by selecting a dark horse candidate for this year’s literature prize. On the other hand, he sounds like a sure bet.

10.09.14 5:06 PM ET

With its announcement that Patrick Modiano has won this year’s prize for literature, the Nobel committee reminds us once again what a big world it is. The 69-year-old Modiano is well known, even celebrated, in France, where he has previously been awarded the coveted Prix Goncourt. Elsewhere he is something of a mystery man. Only a handful of this prolific novelist’s books have been translated into English, for example. So for the non-French speaking world, it’s time to play catch up.

An Internet search turns up several facts: Modiano’s novels are usually quite short (usually under 200 pages), he is quite tall (6 foot 6), and he borrows the techniques and atmosphere of crime fiction and film noir to explore the vagaries of memory and the ravages of time, particularly as they pertain to the role the French played in the Nazi occupation of their country during World War II (he also wrote the screenplay for Louis Malle’s movie Lacombe, Lucien, about collaborators during the war). In announcing the award, the Nobel committee praised Modiano’s work “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

In other words, the author sounds like an unquestionably worthy candidate and a writer you wish you knew more about. For this, we have the Nobel committee to thank. Once again, they have broadened our literary horizons. But if other countries are like the U.S., there is doubtless more grumbling than praise or excitement in the literary precincts of those nations whose authors did not win this year. In the U.S., the loudest grumbling comes, as always, from Philip Roth’s partisans.

Roth, of course, can take solace in the fact that he is in very good company, since the Nobel committee has also overlooked James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens. (If Americans really want to get exorcised about something, they could legitimately complain that no American-born poet besides T.S. Eliot has ever won.)

He could also console himself by reading down the list of winners that history has forgotten (Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam) or those whose reputations, Nobel or no Nobel, have withered over time (John Galsworthy, Pearl S. Buck).

In other words, the Nobel Prize, like all literary prizes, is at best an imperfect measure of greatness and no guarantee of immortality. Modiano, like all winners, will surely enjoy a bump in his international sales, but there is not even the assurance that a decade from now he will be much better known than he is today.

And then of course there is the so-called Nobel curse: what did Faulkner, Hemingway, or Bellow publish after they won that was in any way commensurate with their best work? 

It is best, then, not to take the Nobel choices too seriously. On the other hand, this prize does afford us a chance to broaden our horizons beyond the borders of whatever country we live in. Take the prize not as the last word in greatness but as the advice of people who, however questionable some of their choices may be, have read more widely than most of us have. Yesterday, Patrick Modiano was not even a name to me. Today he’s at the top of my list of writers to explore. What reader could ask for more?