Patrick Modiano, the French writer celebrated for his historical novels centred on life in Paris during the second world war, was on Thursday named the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Nobel Committee said it had honoured the 69-year-old “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”.
Mr Modiano is well known in France but not widely read outside his home country.
“You could say he’s a Marcel Proust of our time,” said Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, organiser of the Nobel prize. “They are small books – 130, 150 pages – which are always variations of the same theme: memory, loss, identity, seeking.”
Mr Modiano was a surprise winner in a field that included Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich. He is 10th Europe-based author to win the award this century.
Antoine Gallimard, Mr Modiano’s publisher, said: “I have spoken to Modiano on the telephone. I congratulated him and with his customary modesty he told me ‘It’s bizarre’. But he was very happy.”
President François Hollande added his congratulations, saying France was proud at the global recognition of “one of our greatest writers”. He said Mr Modiano’s work “explored the subtleties of memory and the complexity of identity”.
The French novelist later told a press conference in Paris: “it seems a bit unreal”. He said: “It is like a sort of double with someone whose name is the same as mine. I would like to see what the reasons were for choosing me.” He added that he was dedicating the prize to his Swedish grandson.
Mr Modiano was born in Paris in 1945, two months after the end of the second world war in Europe. His parents, a Belgian actress and a father of Jewish Italian origins, met during the Nazi occupation. The period has been a recurring preoccupation of Mr Modiano’s work since his acclaimed 1967 debut, La Place de l’Étoile, which he began as a student at the Sorbonne.
Akane Kawankami, a lecturer in French literature at Birkbeck, University of London, emphasises the accessible style in which Mr Modiano presents his sometimes painful subject matter. “He’s a bestseller in France, which means that academics have not tended to think very highly of him,” she says. “For his part, he has been sniffy about difficult writing and experimentation.”
Mr Modiano is heavily involved with the world of cinema, and his books are full of filmic references. He served on the jury at the Cannes Film Festival. He has also written a book with the actress Catherine Deneuve, on Deneuve’s sister Françoise Dorléac.
In the 1960s Mr Modiano wrote the lyrics to tens of French songs, including four for chanteuse Françoise Hardy.
Mr Modiano’s novel Missing Person (Rue des boutiques obscures) won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award, in 1978. In 1996 he was awarded the Grand Prix National des Lettres for his complete body of work. His most recent book Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier was published in France earlier this month.
He is the 111th winner of the SKr8m ($1.1m) Nobel Prize in Literature, which was created in the will of the scientist Alfred Nobel and first awarded in 1901.
Mr Modiano will be presented with the prize in Stockholm on December 10.
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