Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Patrick Modiano has been named the 111th winner of the Nobel prize for literature.

The 69-year-old is the 15th French writer to win the prestigious prize, worth 8m kronor ($1.1m or £700,000).

Patrick Modiano

His name was announced at a short ceremony in Stockholm with Peter Englund, the Nobel Academy’s permanent secretary, reading a citation which said Modiano won “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

Modiano is well known in France but something of an unknown quantity for even widely read people in other countries. His best known novel is probably Missing Person, which won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1978 and is about a detective who loses his memory and endeavours to find it.

The writer was born in a west Paris suburb two months after the second world war ended in Europe in July 1945.

His father was of Jewish Italian origins and met his Belgian actor mother during the occupation of Paris, and Modiano’s beginnings have strongly influenced his writing.

Jewishness, the Nazi occupation and loss of identity are recurrent themes in his novels, which include 1968’s La Place de l’Etoile – later hailed in Germany as a key post-Holocaust work.

He owes his big break to a friendship with a friend of his mother, the French writer Raymond Queneau, who was first introduced him to the Gallimard publishing house when he was in his early 20.

Modiano, who lives in Paris, is known to shun media, and rarely accords interviews. In 2012, he won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature.

Englund said: “Patrick Modiano is a well-known name in France but not anywhere else. He writes children’s books, movie scripts but mainly novels. His themes are memory, identity and time.”

“His best known work is called Missing Person. It’s the story about a detective who has lost his memory and his final case is finding out who he really is: he is tracing his own steps through history to find out who he is.”

He added: “They are small books, 130, 150 pages, which are always variations of the same theme - memory, loss, identity, seeking. Those are his important themes: memory, identity and time.”

Modiano’s win was not a total surprise, with Ladbrokes quoting odds of 10/1 for him earlier this week, fourth favourite behind the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o (7/2), the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (4/1) and the Belarussian journalist Svetlana Aleksijevitj.

The winner is chosen by an academy consisting of 18 prominent Swedish literary figures. This year 210 nominations were received, 36 of which were first timers. That became a 20-name longlist and then a five-name shortlist.

Last year’s award went to the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro.

The Nobel announcements have been going on all week, and will conclude with the peace prize and prize for economics on Friday and Monday respectively.

On Wednesday Stefan Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen, William Moerner of Stanford University in California, and Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia won the chemistry prize “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.”

On Tuesday Shuji Nakamura of the University of California, Santa Barbara, shared the physics prize with Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan for “the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.”

And on Monday, British-US scientist John O’Keefe and married couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser from Norway won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for discovering the brain’s “inner GPS.”

Worth 8m kronor each, the Nobel prizes are always handed out on 10 December, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896. Besides the prize money, each laureate receives a diploma and a gold medal.

Nobel, a wealthy Swedish industrialist who invented dynamite, provided few directions for how to select winners, except that the prize committees should reward those who “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”


Key books, chosen by Rupert Thomson:

1) La Place de l’Etoile, 1968

This semi-autobiographical first novel made an immediate impact with its story of the repercussions of anti-semitism in France in the second world war.

2) Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person) 1978

An existential tale about a detective who has lost his memory, which won Modiano the Prix Goncourt.

3) Voyage des Noces (The Honeymoon) 1990

The novel which sent Modiano off in search of Dora Bruder, though its recollection of a young woman who disappeared.

4) Dora Bruder (The Search Warrant), 1997

Research, speculation and imagination combine in the story of a Jewish girl who went missing during the Occupation of France.

5) Un Pedigree (A Pedigree), 2005

The story of Modiano’s own life up until his 21st year.


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