Modiano: a scholar’s perspective

In 2014, French author Patrick Modiano stepped – uncharacteristically – into the limelight by winning the Nobel Prize in Literature – joining luminaries such as Alice Munro (2013), Doris Lessing (2007) and V. S. Naipaul (2001).

We talked to Dr Akane Kawakami, then Senior Lecturer in modern French literature at Birkbeck, University of London, about Patrick Modiano’s Nobel Prize win, enigmatic persona and the significance of his three novellas, published collectively as Suspended Sentences.

As a scholar in French and francophone literature and someone who is very familiar with Modiano’s writing, why do you think he was chosen as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature?

‘Modiano’s books are not historical books, but they do remind us of the need to remember history’

Modiano is a wonderful writer – his prose is limpid and highly readable, his novels finely and elegantly structured – but I think it is because of his subject matter that he was chosen as the winner of the Nobel this year. Ever since his first book, La Place de l’étoile, he has continued to evoke the period of the Occupation in his novels; often as no more than a backdrop, but an ever-present backdrop that colours everything that has happened since, which is one way of thinking about the effect of the period on France as a whole. It’s a period that the French have tried to forget, to their cost, and have had to be reminded of, often by writers and artists who were too young to have experienced it first-hand. Modiano’s books are not historical books, but they do remind us of the need to remember history, and they evoke it for younger readers in a non-didactic, almost dreamlike way that is, paradoxically, extremely powerful. I think that’s why they thought he deserved the prize.

Have you ever had the pleasure of meeting Patrick Modiano? If so, can you tell us a little bit about the encounter?

I haven’t, unfortunately, had the pleasure. His publishers tried to get in touch with him for me, but he lived up to his media/academic-shy reputation (this was back in 2000 or so). I did wander up and down the street he lives in for a bit, wondering if he might suddenly appear with his dog in the way that I’d heard he did, but no joy.

Until now (2014), Patrick Modiano’s work has received limited recognition outside his native France. Why do you think this is?

Modiano’s subject matter is very specifically French, or at least the resonances of it are peculiarly French inasmuch as it deals with the sense of guilt that France has been left with following the history of collaboration with the Nazi regime during the period of the Occupation. Perhaps that is one reason why it has not translated as well as other subjects might have done. Also, his writing style is deceptively simple, so if it’s not well done, it can appear too simple; I can imagine that some translations might misrepresent him because of this (I am not thinking of any in particular – it’s just a possibility, given the French original).

Yale has published a translation of Modiano’s trilogy of novellas – Afterimage, Suspended Sentences and Flowers of Ruin – together in one volume entitled Suspended Sentences. How representative of his oeuvre are these works? Do they pose any particular challenge to a translator?

I’m not sure these three works should be referred to as a trilogy, as they weren’t conceived of as such by Modiano; inasmuch as they ‘work’ together, so too do all of his other works. But they were published as a set of three by Points in 2007, which is probably one reason for grouping them together: they are also all set in Paris, and the loving detail with which this Paris – a mostly ‘past’ Paris, as the translator says in his introduction – is evoked in them makes the novels representative, certainly, of his work as a whole.

‘…these three works represent different facets of what I’ve called, elsewhere, the Modiano novel’

Taken as individual works, they are quite different from each other. Remise de peine (1988) is about a childhood, apparently autobiographical, and is reminiscent of works like Livret de famille (1977) and De si braves garçons (1982); Fleurs de ruine (1991) is a decentred detective story, like so many of his other novels, in which the interest of the pursuing the mystery soon takes over the actual solving of it. Chien de printemps is fascinating in that the father-figure – recognisable from many a Modiano novel – is a photographer; this novel is the first in which Modiano’s interest in photography is clearly brought to the fore, in which the narrative of a life is replaced, literally, with a roll of film. So I would say that these three works represent different facets of what I’ve called, elsewhere, ‘the Modiano novel’ – which is a recognisable category both in terms of content and marketability – and as such are an excellent choice of three. They are also, all three, published [in French] by Seuil, not Gallimard, which sets them apart from the majority of his novels to date.

The translator has discussed the difficulties of translating the three titles, and I don’t have anything to add to what he says, except that I think Afterimage is a very good translation for Chien de printemps; something of an interpretation, given the subject matter of the novel, as well as a meta-translation of sorts!

Dr Akane Kawakami is Head of Department and Reader in Modern French Literature at Birkbeck, University of London (2020). Her first book was a study of Modiano’s novels.

Also by Patrick Modiano and available from Yale University Press:

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