The written word is in many respects a profound concept – the idea that we can capture and persist thoughts, feelings, ideas, concepts, dreams and visions in a format that can live on long after the author has passed and be picked up and absorbed is truly astonishing. We take it for granted because we have been born with it and grown up in a world awash with the flow of information.
It has perhaps been one of the most profound things we have ever done as a species, the very idea of persisting ideas so that then can then be picked up and learned is one of the foundations that enables us to actually have a civilisation, so it is wholly appropriate that Literature should be one of the Nobel Prize categories.
This category has a bit of a challenge
The award is for “literary excellence”, so how exactly do you measure that in any meaningful objective way?
The criteria is that it is awarded annually to an author from any country who has, in the words of the will of Alfred Nobel, produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction“, so what does that even mean?
So how does it all actually work in practise?
- Members of the Academy, members of literature academies and societies, professors of literature and language, former Nobel literature laureates, and the presidents of writers’ organizations are all allowed to nominate a candidate. (no you can’t nominate yourself, they have a rule about that)
- They then distill that down … to 20 by about last April, then to 5 by last May.
- The subsequent four months are then spent in reading and reviewing the works of the five
- Finally this month they voted and so anybody who gets more than half the votes gets the prize.
It is inevitable that they will get this wrong, because it can only ever be an opinion based exercise and not objective in any way. There will also be folks who should have received the award, but don’t, so this prize will always annoy and upset some.
What group could ever really get its mind round the infinitely varied work of scores of different traditions, and so expecting sixteen Swedish nationals to do that is perhaps a tad absurd.
Now having said all that, the fact that a specific individual does receive the award is perhaps a rather good pointer towards the written works of somebody we might like to consider reading, so with that specific thought in mind …
Who Won this year?
The Nobel Prize in Literature 2014 was awarded to Patrick Modiano “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”.
Patrick Modiano was born on July 30, 1945, in Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb of Paris. His father was a businessman and his mother an actress. After leaving school, he studied at Lycée Henri-IV in Paris. He took private lessons in geometry from Raymond Queneau, a writer who was to play a decisive role for his development. Already in 1968, Modiano made his debut as a writer with La place de l’étoile, a novel that attracted much attention.
Modiano’s works centre on topics such as memory, oblivion, identity and guilt. The city of Paris is often present in the text and can almost be considered a creative participant in the works. Rather often his tales are built on an autobiographical foundation, or on events that took place during the German occupation. He sometimes draws material for his works from interviews, newspaper articles or his own notes accumulated over the years. His novels show an affinity with one another, and it happens that earlier episodes are extended or that persons recur in different tales. The author’s hometown and its history often serve to link the tales together. A work of documentary character, with World War II as background, is Dora Bruder(1997; Dora Bruder, 1999) which builds on the true tale of a fifteen-year old girl in Paris who became one of the victims of the Holocaust. Among the works which most clearly reveal an autobiographical character one notes Un pedigree from 2005.
Some of Modiano’s works have been translated into English, among them Les boulevards de ceinture (1972; Ring Roads : A Novel, 1974), Villa Triste (1975; Villa Triste, 1977), Quartier perdu (1984; A Trace of Malice, 1988) and Voyage de noces (1990; Honeymoon, 1992). His latest work is the novel Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (2014). Modiano has also written children’s books and film scripts. Together with the film director Louis Malle he made the feature movie Lacombe Lucien (1974), set during the German occupation of France.
Major works in English
Learning French is not a requirement, here are some translations you might be interested in …
- Night Rounds / translated by Patricia Wolf. – New York : Knopf, 1971. – Translation of La ronde de nuit
- Ring Roads : A Novel / translated by Caroline Hillier. – London : V. Gollancz, 1974. – Translation of Les boulevards de ceinture
- Lacombe Lucien : The Complete Scenario of the Film / by Louis Malle and Patrick Modiano ; translated by Sabine Destrée. – New York : Viking Press, 1975. – Translation of Lacombe Lucien : scénario
- Villa Triste / translated by Caroline Hillier. – London : V. Gollancz, 1977. – Translation of Villa Triste
- Missing Person / translated by Daniel Weissbort. – London : Cape, 1980. – Translation of Rue des boutiques obscures
- A Trace of Malice / translated by Anthea Bell. – Henley-on-Thames : A. Ellis, 1988. – Translation of Quartier perdu
- Honeymoon / translated by Barbara Wright. – London: Harvill, 1992. – Translation of Voyage de noces
- Out of the Dark = Du plus loin de l’oubli / translated by Jordan Stump. – Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 1998. – Translation of Du plus loin de l’oubli
- Dora Bruder / translated by Joanna Kilmartin. – Berkeley : University of California Press, 1999. – Translation of Dora Bruder
- Catherine Certitude / ill. by Jean-Jacques Sempé ; translated by William Rodarmor. – Boston : David R. Godine, 2000. – Translation of Catherine Certitude
- The Search Warrant / translated by Joanna Kilmartin. – London : Harvill, 2000. – Translation of Dora Bruder