Antoine Laurain on Patrick Modiano, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
Patrick Modiano has just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. This afternoon as I write, he has still not responded officially to the news, but his publisher, Antoine Gallimard, has revealed that the author of Missing Person is ‘very happy’ and also ‘finds it bizarre’…
Only Modiano could use the word ‘bizarre’ in relation to this greatest of literary honours. Patrick Modiano is without doubt the most engaging French literary figure of the last forty years. He is the author of 28 novels, the first of which, La Place de l’Étoile, was published in 1968. Modiano’s universe is deeply rooted in the Paris of the 1960s and has an almost dreamlike quality. Often you will come across a sweet-natured and unattached young man – a kind of double of the author himself – who, by way of a series of encounters, finds himself erring towards the secrets of the past, which are usually linked to the period of the Occupation in some way.
Mysterious, seductive women; suave, sleazy businessmen who made their fortunes during the war; late-night revellers; struggling actors; someone handing over the keys to an empty apartment; lawyers with bogus clients; the phone ringing and the caller asking for a name dredged from the distant past; classified ads written in code … these too are ‘Modianesque’ hallmarks that crop up again and again in his novels. The expression ‘petite musique’ has often been used to describe the universe he creates, along with his style, which is among the purest and most beautiful in French literature. Modiano is one of those rare writers whose books you could open on a random page and instantly recognise as his. Pursuing the themes of the search for identity, the essence of Jewishness, childhood secrets, quests that take you in all sorts of unexpected directions – towards the France of old, or nowhere at all – Modiano has held his appeal for forty years. And his readers are unswervingly loyal: in their homes, you will find entire bookshelves dedicated to the author, the spines bearing Gallimard’s NRF logo lined up in order of publication.
Rarely taking part in interviews, Modiano is known for his pathological difficulty expressing himself: when he speaks, his sentences are punctuated by ellipses, silences, hesitations, corrections – to the extent you forget what the question was in the first place. For a long time, Patrick Modiano’s place in French literature was as the young, tormented dreamer with the ‘bizarre’ manner of speaking. Writers of my generation hold him up as an inspiration: here was this handsome, young, likeable person, in touch with his emotions, and different from the rest – all the other writers we admired (Proust, Camus, Céline, Stendhal…) were long dead. But we still had Patrick Modiano. And we remained faithful to him, treating the publication of every new Modiano novel as an event, as so many others do. We grew up with him, he has grown old with us. But to us he will always be our youthful hero. Diving into his hypnotic prose is like having a dream: Patrick Modiano is our sandman.
Wanting to pay homage to him in my novel The Red Notebook, I was bold enough to make him appear in one of the chapters as a character in the story, playing himself. My task was to reproduce his tall frame, his voice, his manner of speaking, and the anxious kindness of his eyes. I hope I succeeded. In real life, I’ve only seen him once, in the street. The idea of speaking to him didn’t even cross my mind; I just stopped and watched him for a good minute.
I’m so pleased that this most enchanting of writers has won the recognition of a Nobel prize. All those who love his writing are sharing his happiness and the sense it’s all a little ‘bizarre’. A friend of mine, one of his most devoted readers, to whom I sent a text saying ‘Have you seen who won the Nobel? I’m worried about the speech…’ replied: ‘Who? Don’t tell me it’s Modiano??!’
Yep, today it really happened. It’s him.
Antoine Laurain is the author of The President’s Hat, The Red Notebook, French Rhapsody and The Portrait