The 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature is French author Patrick Modiano. A winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary award, Modiano has published more than 30 books, mostly novels. His debut was “La place de l’étoile,” published in France in 1968.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, never fear: He hasn’t been widely published in the U.S.
Born in 1945 to a Jewish family outside of Paris, Modiano’s father was a black marketeer who profited from the Nazi occupation. For several years, Modiano he gave his birth year as 1947 to distance himself from that history; Forward magazine notes that in 2007 he admitted to a TV interviewer that he was “distressed and tormented to be born” in 1945.
Modiano’s books have consistently circled around the troublesome history of France during World War II. His novels are slender; the Nobel’s permanent secretary Peter Englund noted after the Nobel prize announcement, “you can read him easily — one of his books in the afternoon, have dinner, and read another one in the evening.”
When his works are found in American bookstores, it’s mostly thanks to the efforts of university and independent presses.
“Missing Person,” which won the Prix Goncourt, is a novel set in the 1950s about a man who has lost his identity and uses the files of a detective agency to try to discover himself. It was published in the U.S. in 2004 (translated by Daniel Weissbort) by the Boston-based independent press David R. Godine.
David R. Godine has published two other of Modiano’s works — “Honeymoon,” translated by Barbara Wright (1990); and the children’s book “Catherine Certitude," illustrated by Jean-Jacques Sempe (2001).
His novel “Dora Bruder” published by the University of California Press (1999), blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction in the pursuit of a story of the disappearance of a Jewish Parisian teen during World War II.
“For Modiano the past is never simply the past, but a screen onto which he projects his own existential fixations....” writes critic Jean Charbonneau. “Modiano’s goal is to wage a war against oblivion, and one could say that his oeuvre is a series of investigations. His detractors claim he always writes the same book, with characters on the trace of someone, or tracking a memory, or in search of a proof or a confirmation of their own history.
Other books that have been published in English translation — some of which are out of print — include “Night Rounds” (1971, Knopf), “A Trace of Malice” (1988, Aiden Ellis) and “Out of the Dark” (1998, University of Nebraska Press).
Modiano, who lives in Paris, rarely grants interviews. After the announcement of his Nobel Prize, permanent secretary Englund said they had not yet reached him to tell him the news.
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