Patrick Modiano, a historical novelist haunted by France’s painful experience of Nazi occupation and his own childhood wounds, won the Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday.
The Swedish Academy said it wanted to celebrate his “art of memory” in capturing the lives of ordinary people during German rule, which lasted from 1940 to 1944 in France.
“This is someone who has written many books that speak to each other, that echo off each other, that are about memory, identity and seeking,” said Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the academy.
“They are small books… always variations on the same theme: about memory, about loss, about identity, about seeking.”
“He’s a kind of Marcel Proust for our time, rewinding backwards,” Englund said.
Modiano, described by one critic as “1 metre 90 of shyness and candor,” is one of France’s most celebrated writers, and a winner of the country’s top award the Goncourt.
The 69-year-old has described the occupation of France as “the soil I grew up in”.
He was born at the end of World War II, on July 30, 1945, in the Paris suburb of Boulogne into a family whose complex background set the scene for a lifelong obsession with that dark period in history.
His father, Alberto Modiano, was an Italian Jew with ties to the Gestapo who did not have to wear the yellow star and who was also close to organised crime gangs. His mother was a Flemish actress named Louisa Colpeyn.
Published when he was just 22, in 1967, his first novel “La place de l’etoile” (The Star’s Place), was a direct reference to that mark of shame inflicted on the Jews.
In 1972, Modiano was awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prize for his novel “Ring Roads”, and the prestigious Goncourt Prize in 1978 for “Missing Person”.
In 1996, he won the National Literature Grand Prize for his entire work.
His latest work, “Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier” (So you don’t get lost in the neighbourhood) appeared this month.
– ‘ Cold heart’ –
Along with collaborationist France, Modiano’s work is haunted by what he says was a cold upbringing, creating the impression of a long letter to his parents.
The writer has described his mother’s heart as so cold that her lap-sized chow-chow leapt from a window to his death.
The eldest of two boys, Patrick spent long periods in boarding schools. His younger brother, Rudy, died in 1957 when Modiano was still a boy.
When he was 17, Modiano broke all ties with his father, who died 15 years later and to whom he has devoted several books.
Still a teenager, Modiano left school and began to write.
“I was not yet 20, but my memories date to before I was born,” he has said.
Modiano himself has cited a famous quote by Stendhal to illustrate his work: “I cannot give you the reality of facts, I can only present the shadow.”
The novelist — who has been translated into more than 30 languages — has trouble expressing himself in public and refused a nomination to the elite Academie Francaise.
Apart from a long series of books, in the early 1970s, Modiano co-wrote the screenplay for Lacombe Lucien, a movie directed by Louis Malle focusing on French collaboration with the Nazis.
The Nobel carries a prize sum of eight million Swedish kronor ($1.1 million, 878,000 euros).
Modiano will be presented with his award at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.
Last year’s Nobel Literature Prize went to the Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro.