It is truly a shame that Patrick Modiano, who has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature today, is so little known—in America, at least—outside of academic circles.
In France, of course, Modiano, as the author of more than 25 works of fiction, is that characteristically French breed of celebrity philosophe, a fixture in the country’s intellectual aristocracy with connections to nearly everyone who matters: the experimental writer Raymond Queneau (an early mentor), the director Louis Malle (with whom Modiano co-wrote the screenplay for Lacombe Lucien in 1973), and the documentarian Claude Lanzmann, to list just a few. But Modiano is more than just one of those names you have to know if you want to finish The New York Times crossword puzzle without an iPhone: He is without question among the most gifted literary stylists at work in the French language today, and he is among the most playful and original theorists of fiction at work in any language.
It’s on this latter point that Modiano has made his greatest contribution to the form. As the son of a Jewish father and Belgian mother who met in Nazi-occupied Paris, Modiano’s work often explores themes related to the German Occupation of France, the moral complexities of collaboration, and, of course, what remains the most traumatic, shameful, and arresting chapter in modern French history—complicity in the Holocaust. I will not soon forget the first time I encountered Modiano’s remarkable Dora Bruder, in which the author embarks on an all-consuming quest to reconstruct the life of Dora Bruder herself, a 15-year-old-girl whose parents placed an advertisement for their missing daughter in the personal columns of the newspaper Paris Soir on New Year’s Eve 1941. As Modiano suggests throughout his narrative, which blends an explication of Pétainist collaboration with a struggle to come to terms with his family’s own past—and, to some extent, his own autobiography—there is, in certain instances, a terminal, fundamental inability of the written word to reclaim the past through the vagaries of memory. Reading Dora Bruder, what you take away is absence—the absence of Dora Bruder herself and the absence (or, really, the impossibility) of any kind of cohesive narrative that can tell us what befell her and so many others. Fragmentation and illegibility are intermingled with facts throughout the text: there may be some things that we know, but there are many others still that we cannot remember.
In that sense, Patrick Modiano is a post-Proustian figure for a time later in the twentieth century when Proust’s famous “temps perdu” (lost time) became what we might call “temps volé,” time stolen from our civilization and our consciousness. What may be most intriguing in Modiano’s work is his moving demonstration of both the power and the powerlessness of memory as a tool of recovery.