This morning readers across America sighed with boredom and mild irritation as the Swedish Academy announced the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. Who? Patrick Modiano, a Frenchman who is definitely not J. M. G. Le Clézio or Michel Houellebecq. At first, I felt like I had been trolled by the Academy. If the winner was going to be a “surprise,” why not pick a younger writer? Kipling was only 42 when he won. Or, even better, why not award the Nobel to a writer on the basis of a single work? Hemingway won solely because of The Old Man and the Sea. Or just give it to Adonis already.
Then I realized that I most definitely had been trolled by the Swedish Academy. In fact, we all had been trolled especially hard by Horace Engdahl, the Prize’s crotchety unofficial spokesman, who also happens to hate America. But maybe we deserved to be trolled? And even if we didn’t deserve it, we have to admit that Engdahl has made his point.
Yes, the Academy’s selection of Patrick Modiano for the prize is pedantic. One imagines the judges patting each other on the back, sipping cognac and smoking cigarillos, as Assistant Editors everywhere hurriedly research Modiano’s catalogue and biography. But it’s also the delivery of a promise. Engdahl has persistently pointed out that American literature is myopic and unworldly, most recently in the Guardian just days before the announcement. What better way to prove this point than with the selection of Modiano, a bestselling author we’ve never heard of with a massive backlist of novels that have never been translated. (Although Yale University Press will be correcting this with the publication of three novellas next month.) Awarded for his “art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation,” Modiano is the perfect mix of wildly popular and totally unknown (to Americans). He’s so popular that entire chapters of books on him are devoted to his popularity. From Akane Kawakami’s A Self-Conscious Art: Patrick Modiano’s Postmodern Fictions:
Modiano may be both serious and playful, but above all he is popular. His novels sell extremely well: they are always on the best-seller lists when they first appear, and even his older works display staying power on the market.
Modiano is not only unimaginably popular, he’s also highly decorated. He’s won many awards, including the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Mondial Cino Del Duca for lifetime achievement. And yet, strangely, every piece I can find on the man reads like an introduction. This, from Michael Wood in the London Review of Books 14 years ago, is the best of the lot:
Modiano published his first novel, La Place de l’Etoile, in 1968. He won the Prix Goncourt in 1978 for Rue des boutiques obscures, and in 1996 was awarded the Grand Prix National des Lettres for his work as a whole. He has become the object of a modestly growing academic industry. I take the quotations from Modiano with which I began (and a couple of later ones) from Alan Morris’s sensible book Patrick Modiano, published in 1996, and there have been several full-length works on him in French since, and plenty of articles. With Louis Malle, Modiano wrote the screenplay for Lacombe, Lucien (1974), and he wrote a book in collaboration with Catherine Deneuve, called Elle s’appelait Françoise . . . I haven’t been able to get hold of this or discover its date, but I assume it’s about Deneuve’s dead sister, the actress Françoise Dorléac.
The more I learn about Modiano, the more baffled I am (at myself) for not knowing who he is. He wrote a book with Catherine Deneuve? He’s the object of a “modestly growing” academic cottage industry? Of course, this would all seem to prove Engdahl’s point. The selection of Modiano does make a lot of us seem myopic and naive. Of course, our lack of familiarity with Modiano will probably be chalked up to his reclusiveness, which is terrible argument considering how much we know about our own media-shy heavyweights.
So Modiano now has a million dollars that he does not need. (This is probably the best argument against his selection.) And the Swedish Academy sustains its reputation as a confederacy of gagsters in tweed. Of course, American literature has come a long way with literature in translation — more translation journals and presses are popping up everyday — but, at the very least, Engdahl and Co.’s Nobel Prize prank reveals that we still have a ways to go.