He has just been named the 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but much of Frenchman Patrick Modiano’s person and work remains unknown to literature fans here. Perhaps this is because the 69-year-old author is publicity shy, and also because only a few of his works have been translated into English.
Here are some interesting facts about this little known author, who has more than 30 books and even movie screenplays to his name.
He loves being ambiguous
His books are often in the detective genre, and English author Rupert Thomson told The Guardian that Modiano frequently depicts “an ambiguous world” in his works, where agendas are kept hidden, memories are a blur, and identities are uncertain.
Even when he talks, Modiano sounds ambiguous.
The Hindustan Times quoted Modiano as having said that his characters are “images from a tapestry that has been woven half asleep”, and on his work, he once used 19th century French writer Stendhal’s quote, saying: “I cannot give you the reality of facts, I can only present the shadow.”
In autobiographical work Pedigree, Modiano also wrote: “I even try to find mystery in things that have none.”
There is a French term named after him
Because he seems so into being mysterious, there is a French term named after him, “modianesque”, that has come to refer to a particularly ambiguous person or situation.
He was an unhappy little boy
He was born in Paris in 1945, to an Italian Jew father Alberto Modiano and a Flemish actress mother Louisa Colpeyn. His father was said to have black market business deals with the Gestapo, the secret police of Nazi Germany, and to have largely abandoned the family. Modiano once described his mother – who was frequently away too as a result of her show tours – as having a heart so cold that her lap-sized chow chow leapt from a window to its death.
Right, very depressing. But his sad childhood does not stop there.
When he was 12, his younger and only brother Rudy died of a disease at age 10.
Modiano later spent many years in boarding schools, and broke off ties with his father when he was 17.
His wedding day was dramatic
He married a woman named Dominique Zehrfuss in 1970, who has authored a French book, Peau de Caniche. They have two adult daughters, Zina and Marie.
In a 2003 interview with Elle, Modiano’s wife is quoted as saying about the day they wed: “It rained. A real nightmare. Our groomsmen… started to argue about Dubuffet (French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet), and it was like we were watching a tennis match! That said, it would have been funny to have some photos, but the only person who had a camera forgot to bring the film.
He sounds as though he does not enjoy writing
Modiano has compared writing to driving in a fog: “You don’t know where you’re going, you just know you have to go on.”
In an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro, he was also quoted as saying: “For a long time I’ve had a recurring dream – I dream I don’t have to write anymore, that I’m free. I’m not free, alas, I’m still clearing the same terrain, with the impression that it’s never finished.”
But he is pretty brilliant
Although he makes it sound as though writing is a chore and a burden, he successfully published his first work in 1967 at the tender age of 22.
His first novel La place de l’etoile (The Star’s Place), was a direct reference to the mark of shame inflicted on the Jews during World War II – a yellow cloth patch that they had to sew onto their outer garments to publicly mark themselves as Jews.
He is an extremely detailed and detail-oriented writer
He has been called a “literary archaeologist”, whose works are often set in the period 1940-1944, when France was occupied by Nazi Germany.
His descriptions of wartime Paris are rich in detail, with street and cafe names, and metro stations.
Guardian critic Catherine Taylor, in praise of Modiano, writes: “A truly impressive sifter of apparent ephemera, Modiano pieces together newspaper cuttings, vague testimonies and old telephone directories.”
His work is a challenge to translate
Jordan Stump, a professor of French at the University of Nebraska who translated Modiano’s 1996 novel Out Of The Dark, says the book’s original French title was hard to translate because it meant “from the furthest point of forgotten-ness”.
The Wall Street Journal quotes Stump as describing Modiano’s work in this manner: “There is a kind of poetry in it but it’s very discreet. So if you translate him too plainly, or if you translate him too poetically, you completely lose the voice.”
He dabbled in acting and screenplay
Modiano had a cameo appearance opposite French actress Catherine Deneuve in 1997 movie Genealogies Of A Crime. He played a character called Bob.
Modiano made his screenplay writing debut with the film Lacombe, Lucien in 1974, according to movie database site IMDb. This film focused on an 18-year-old boy’s involvement with the French Gestapo after failing to join the French Resistance.
This was followed by another screenplay, Une Jeunesse, in 1983. More recently, he was one of the writers for Bon Voyage (2003), which also points towards Modiano’s fascination with the Occupation. It is about how an actress, a writer, a student and a government worker work together to escape Paris, as the Nazis occupy the city.
In 2000, he sat on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival.
What he said after being named Nobel Prize winner
According to The Guardian, Modiano heard the news through a phone call from his daughter while he was out walking in Paris. “I was very moved”, he said.
When asked what it meant to be a Nobel laureate, he apparently choked up with emotion and said: “I never thought this would happen to me, it has truly touched me.”
During a packed news conference at the headquarters of his French publisher Éditions Gallimard, Mordiano said: “It felt like looking at a double, as if we were celebrating somebody who had my name.
“I didn’t expect it at all.”
Credit: The Strait Times