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Everything you need to know about Nobel Literature Prize winner Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano, the French novelist whose work explores ideas of isolation and identity during the Nazi occupation of France, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday morning.

Here's everything you need to know to catch up on who he is, and why it's a big deal that he was awarded the prize this year:

1) Who is Patrick Modiano?

Patrick Modiano is a French novelist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday morning. He has published 27 novels, in addition to children's books and two screenplays. The French word "modianesque" has come to refer to a particularly ambiguous person or situation, as a nod to Modiano's reclusive, mysterious nature.

Modiano is known for novels that try to parse out the intrinsics of identity by circling through a character's past. Much of his work takes place in Paris and describes the city amid the Nazi Occupation during the Second World War. According to the Nobel Prize committee, Modiano was awarded the prize "for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation."

Although he's authored many novels, Modiano has said that he is "always writing the same book," as The Atlantic notes. That's because much of his writing focuses on the same theme: memory, and more specifically, the memory of Nazi-occupied Paris. In fact, the Swedish academy that awarded Modiano the prize said it was doing so to celebrate the "art of memory" that he has cultivated. The Nobel academy referred to him as "a Marcel Proust of our time."

Modiano himself seems haunted by memories from his childhood, as a profile by Julien Bisson in France Today notes:

It is difficult to explain the story of this sensitive boy, born in 1945 to an Italian Jewish father and a Belgian mother. His childhood was torn by various displacements, his father's absence and the tragic death of his brother Rudy, struck by leukemia at age 10. He recalled this tormented but nostalgic epoch in his popular memoir Un Pedigree, in 2005: "I couldn't write an autobiography, that's why I called it a 'pedigree': It's a book less on what I did than on what others, mainly my parents, did to me."

2) What are some of his most famous works?

modiano

Modiano's books on display at the Nobel announcement (Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty)

Modiano is a prolific writer, but few of his books have sold at monumental levels. He published his first book,  La Place de l'Etoile, at 22 to great critical reception. His sixth novel, Rue des Boutiques Obscures won him the Prix Goncourt Award in 1978. Modiano's most recent novel is titled L'herbe des Nuits.

Unlike many novelists who have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature before him (such as Toni Morrison and Ernest Hemingway), Modiano doesn't have a single smash-hit novel. He has more than 20 great novels, and that's what won him the prize.

3) What is criticism of his work like?

Modiano has not shied away from controversy. For instance, his first critically-hailed novel, La Place de l'Étoile, takes its title, as Benjamin Ivry notes in The Jewish Daily Forward, from a dark joke:

[La Place] contains as an epigraph a joke set in 1942, when a Nazi officer approaches a young man and asks, "Where is the place de l'étoile [literally ‘the place of the star']?" and the young man, who turns out to be Jewish, points to the left side of his chest, thereby mutely indicating, "This is the place where the star should be," or, "la place de l'étoile."

Because of willingness to explore similar themes in absurdist ways, Ivry sees a "moral ambiguity" present in Modiano's work.

Another critique of Modiano's writing is that it lacks grandiosity, as J.P. Smith notes: "There is nothing big about his work." What Smith means is that Modiano has mastered the art of crafting compelling fiction about quite ordinary people.

4) Why is the Nobel Prize in Literature such a big deal?

Nobel Prize medal Physics 1906

Nobel Prize medal for Physics, 1906

The Nobel Prize in Literature, worth $1 million, is the largest monetary prize a novelist can win. It is also the most prestigious. To be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is to be inducted into an elite club with some of the biggest names in the modern literary canon.

In the past, the award has been given to Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, Alice Munro, Pablo Neruda, and many more titans of the literary world.

5) Why do I keep hearing Philip Roth's name?

wikipedia screenshot

Screenshot from Wikipedia Thursday morning after the awarding of the Nobel Prize

Philip Roth is an American novelist who is widely believed to deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature. For years, his name has been thrown around as a potential recipient of the award. Immediately after the committee announced Modiano's award, the Guardian published a piece titled, "The real scandal of Patrick Modiano's Nobel win is that Philip Roth is a huge loser — again"

Most of this drama stems from the fact that the Nobel Prize is one of the most controversial awards in the world, but part of it is Roth's own doing. Renowned for writing twisting stories told from the first person perspective, Roth is also kind of cocky. The rumor, as alluded to in the Guardian article, is that for years, he would wait in his publicist's office for the Nobel committee to call and inform him that he had won. That confidence in his work is admirable, but it also ignores several other great American novelists who could make a case for winning the award such as Don Delillo, Marilynne Robinson, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, and Cormac McCarthy.

The last American to win was Toni Morrison in 1993, though Canadian Alice Munro won just last year. (The Nobel prize committee tends to spread the prize around geographically by continent.)

6) Which of Modiano's works should I read first?

To start, try Du Plus Loin de l'Oublí (Out of the Dark). Modiano published it in 1996, and it tells the story of the mysterious Jacqueline, who meets up with a past lover 15 years after their break-up. Jacqueline has changed her name, and denies ever meeting her past lover. Modiano's ability to obscure what is real and what is not typifies his obsession with mystery and allows his elegiac prose to shine.

From there, perhaps try his most famous novel, Missing Person, which deals with a man trying to recover his identity, lost during the Paris occupation. There is also the upcoming Suspended Sentences, which collects three of Modiano's books in one place. (Fortunately for the curious, Modiano's novels tend to be quite short.)

7) Why should I care about Modiano's writing at all?

So much fiction today is larger than life and looks either to the immediate present or what is coming. Modiano's fiction pushes against that strand of thought, calling us back, page after page, to a time and place that we can't afford to forget. It's in that backward-glancing, Modiano reminds us, that we find our present identities. "How can I track evidence of my existence through the traces of the past?" is the question, writes Bisson, Modiano's work leaves us with.

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