Did Patrick Modiano Deserve It?

René Burri/Magnum Photos
Patrick Modiano, Paris, 2007

The news that Patrick Modiano had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature was greeted with jubilation in France. After all, the biggest best seller in the weeks following this year’s summer holidays—the great French rentrée—was Valérie Trierweiler’s unseemly personal account of the private life of the president of the Republic, François Hollande. So the idea that due recognition had been given to a writer distinguished by his subtlety and obsessed with the German occupation, a period that few Frenchmen are willing to face head on, an author with a virtuoso’s command of language, equally at ease with the simple and the complex, the precise and the evocative, restored a certain equilibrium. Modiano found the Swedish jury’s decision “bizarre,” but then Modiano tends to find everything bizarre and complicated, and he makes no secret of his distaste at finding himself in the spotlight of public attention.

When Denis Cosnard, an economic journalist with a passion for Modiano’s work, decided to write his biography, Modiano’s publisher recommended he work alone. That was good advice, considering that Modiano refused to meet Cosnard. And it was probably for the best. To watch a video of Modiano being interviewed is to realize immediately that he is a journalist’s nightmare. Modiano clearly hates answering questions; he gets tangled up in his own sentences in which the word occurring most frequently is bizarre; he seems to be lost in a dense fog; he gestures wildly with his long arms as if they were the sails of a windmill; and by the time he has finished he hasn’t explained much. No doubt about it, Modiano is no talker, he is a writer.

He was born in 1945 (for nearly twenty years, he claimed he was born in 1947, the birth year of his younger brother, who died at the age of ten) in Boulogne-Billancourt, just outside of Paris. His parents met in 1942. His mother—“a pretty girl with an arid heart” according to her son—managed to leave her native Flanders in June 1942 through the protection of a German officer; she had landed minor film roles back home, and in Paris she worked for a German-run film production company. Modiano’s father was a Jew; his family, originally from Italy, had moved to Thessaloniki, but Modiano’s father was born in France. He never declared his Jewish identity during the war, surviving under a false name and making a living through shady means, all of them connected to the black market. Their son, Patrick, would spend the rest of his life obsessed with those troubled years, a dangerous time shrouded in lies. “That’s the soil—or the manure—from which I sprang.”

By and large, his parents ignored him. He was raised speaking Flemish by his maternal grandparents at least until the age of four. A few years later, he was placed…

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