The art of memory

October 14, 2014 01:21 am | Updated November 16, 2021 06:52 pm IST

The world outside France wondered who >Patrick Modiano was after the French author was awarded the >Nobel Prize in literature last week. The 69-year-old author, who is well-known in France, a country where he has been often compared to Marcel Proust, has been largely unknown to non-French readers. This is because despite having written more than 30 novels and children’s books and screenplays, few of his works have been translated into English. But, as the Swedish Academy’s previous Permanent Secretary, Horace Engdahl, once said: “The purpose of the prize is to make them [writers] famous, not to tap them when they are famous.” Mr. Modiano’s work has stemmed mostly from the complexities of his childhood. His father was an Italian Jew who did not wear the yellow star when Jews were being deported, and instead came closer to organised crime gangs with ties to the Gestapo. His mother was a Flemish actress whose heart, as the writer once described, was so cold that it made her lapdog leap through the window to death. The French writer Clemence Boulouque told The New Yorker: “Modiano has returned again and again to the same themes: the pull of the past, the threat of disappearance, the blurring of moral boundaries, ‘the dark side of the soul.’” As for writing, as Mr. Modiano put it, “It’s something natural, it’s something that’s part of my life.”

In his writing career spanning almost 50 years, Mr. Modiano has shunned publicity and the media limelight, and like many of his works, has remained a mysterious character to his readers. This has led to the origin of the French term “modianesque”, used to describe a mysterious person or situation. In some of his interviews the writer has suggested that writing is not something that brings pleasure to him but is more of a burden from which he cannot set himself free. He compares it to driving in fog when one doesn’t know where one is going, but nevertheless one has to go on. Mr. Modiano’s work often deals with his Jewish origin and the period of Occupation. In a 2010 interview to France Today , Mr. Modiano said: “After each novel, I have the impression that I have cleared it all away … but I know I’ll come back over and over again to tiny details, little things that are a part of what I am. In the end, we are all determined by the place and the time in which we were born.” It is this quality that the Nobel Prize committee recognised, describing it as “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” Unlike the detective Guy Roland in his best-known work, Missing Person , Mr. Modiano doesn’t have the luxury of losing his memory. But even if it had, he would always attempt to find it.

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