On Thursday morning, novelist Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation," according to the Prize committee.
The following passage from his 1997 classic Dora Bruder is a perfect example of the themes that occupy much of Modiano's writing and thought — memory, loss, recovery, time.
It takes a long time for the light to resurface what was erased. Traces remain in the books, and it is ignored where they are hidden and what guards watch over them and if these guardians consent to show you. Or maybe they have simply forgotten that such records existed.
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. Modiano, of his own admission, is afflicted with "the mania of looking back" in the direction of something that has been lost. Time, as Michael Wood notes in the London Review of Books, is not Modiano's subject so much as his medium; he's not writing about time, he's writing along it, within it.
All of his works, as noted, are written from this place of "mania," but the theme of memory is perhaps most clearly at play in Dora Bruder, which was later published in English as The Search Warrant. Dora Bruder is a literary hybrid, fusing together several genres — biography, autobiography, detective novel — to tell the history of its title character, a 15 year-old daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who, after running away from the safety of the convent that was hiding her, ends up being deported to Auschwitz.
As Modiano explains in the opening of his novel, he first became interested in Dora's story when he came across her name in a missing persons headline in a December 1941 edition of the French newspaper Paris Soir. Prompted by his own passion for the past, Modiano went to the listed address, and from there began his investigation, his search for memories.
As Kirkus notes, Dora Bruder is "not a Holocaust memoir or historical fiction but a skillful reconstruction of a life that strides the two genres." All memory, Modiano seems to remind us, involves the interplay of what happened and what might have happened.
You can read a longer excerpt of Dora Bruder at The Telegraph.