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Frenchman Modiano wins Nobel Prize in literature

Carolyn Kellogg Los Angeles Times

When the Swedish Academy announced French author Patrick Modiano as the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature, even the best-read Americans asked, “Who?”

Modiano is highly regarded in France, where in addition to being a recipient of the country’s highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt, he’s known as the co-author with Louis Malle of the screenplay for Oscar-winning “Lacombe, Lucien,” and a onetime lyricist for chanteuse Francoise Hardy.

He has published more than 30 books in his homeland with top publisher Gallimard; mostly slender novels based in Paris, they circle around the issues of memory, erasure and the legacy of World War II. The Nobel committee cited his work “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

Yet in the U.S., his work has a scattered publishing history, with books issued in translation here by multiple small and university presses. About half of his works have gone out of print.

“Rue des boutiques obscures,” the book that won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, didn’t appear in English in the U.S. until 2004, when it was published as “Missing Person” by the independent Boston-based press David R. Godine.

Reached by phone at his New Hampshire warehouse, publisher David Godine said he was busy pulling Modiano books from the shelves. “We’ll be cleaned out of these books,” he said. “We’re reprinting them all as fast as we can.” The company also published Modiano’s novel “Honeymoon” and a children’s book, “Catherine Certitude.”

This is the second Nobel winner on Godine’s list; he also published J.M.G. Le Clezio, who won the prize in 2008. For a small publisher like Godine, he says, “the Nobel makes a huge difference. With Le Clezio, we probably sold between 6,000 to 10,000 copies within two months.”

Other Modiano books published in America include “Night Rounds” (1971, Knopf), “A Trace of Malice” (1988, Aiden Ellis), “Out of the Dark” (1998, University of Nebraska Press), “The Search Warrant” (2000, Random House) and “Dora Bruder,” published by the University of California Press (1999).

Born in 1945 to a Jewish family outside of Paris, Modiano grew up estranged from his father, a black marketeer during the Nazi occupation. For several years, Modiano gave his birth year as 1947 to distance himself from that history; Forward magazine notes that in 2007 he admitted to a TV interviewer that he was “distressed and tormented to be born” in 1945.

Modiano’s books have consistently circled around the troublesome history of France during World War II. In “Dora Bruder,” Modiano blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction in the pursuit of a story of the disappearance of a Jewish Parisian teen during World War II, while “Missing Person” is a kind of backward detective story.

“His great subject,” Michael Wood wrote in 2000 in the London Review of Books, “is not passing time but missing persons.”

His novels are slender; the Nobel’s permanent secretary Peter Englund noted after the Nobel Prize announcement, “you can read him easily – one of his books in the afternoon, have dinner, and read another one in the evening.”

“It’s too bad that it takes the Nobel Prize to call people’s attention to the fact that there are small publishers out there trying to bring (works in translation) before the American public,” Godine says.

Yale University Press will publish “Suspended Sentences,” a trio of Modiano’s novellas, in November.

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