Nobel, Patrick Modiano, and Me

Never heard of Patrick Modiano?

It might help if you lived in France.

I didn’t know there was any past kerfuffle over the Nobel committee’s tendency to be Euro-centric in its selections for the literary prize, but I don’t mind getting to know about excellent writers outside my own country.

(K)eep in mind that while foreign translations from most literary writers can be hard to come by, there really isn’t reason to complain about Nobel winners being inaccessible. After all, the vast majority of winners since the prize’s debut in 1901 had written in English.

What’s more, awarding the honor to little-known writers — at least, from an English-reader’s perspective — can help introduce authors to a wider audience. Shortly after Jelinek won the prize in 2004, the American distributor of her book The Piano Teacher ran out of copies because demand was so unusually high. That was famously one of the goals of the Swedish Academy’s previous Permanent Secretary, Horace Engdahl, who once responded to criticism saying, “The purpose of the prize is to make them famous, not to tap them when they are famous.”

That prospect has already excited fans of Modiano’s in France. Anne Ghisoli, the director of the Parisian bookstore Librairie Gallimard, told the Times she had long been a Modiano fan, “but this prize will help raise the global profile of one of our consummate writers.”

[Gibson, Megan. “Why You Haven’t Heard of Patrick Modiano, Winner of the Nobel in LiteratureTime, 9 October 2014.]

A portion of his speech is highlighted in today’s issue of Shelf Awareness:

Time has speeded up since then and moves forward in fits and starts–explaining the difference between the towering literary edifices of the past, with their cathedral-like architectures, and the disjointed and fragmented works of today. From this point of view, my own generation is a transitional one, and I would be curious to know how the next generations, born with the Internet, mobile phones, e-mails and tweets, will express through literature this world in which everyone is permanently ‘connected’ and where ‘social networks’ are eating into that part of intimacy and secrecy that was still our own domain until quite recently–the secrecy that gave depth to individuals and could become a major theme in a novel. But I will remain optimistic about the future of literature and I am convinced that the writers of the future will safeguard the succession just as every generation has done since Homer.

I can identify with that need to put up a shield against the noise and the constant connection that eats at the soul.

Although I won a few prizes for speech-giving while in school, I dislike standing before crowds because my hands and voice shake and my thoughts scatter. Modiano, too, expresses his discomfort:

Calling to mind the way school lessons distinguish between the written and the oral, a novelist has more talent for written than oral assignments. He is accustomed to keeping quiet, and if he wants to imbibe an atmosphere, he must blend in with the crowd. He listens to conversations without appearing to, and if he steps in it is always in order to ask some discreet questions so as to improve his understanding of the women and men around him. His speech is hesitant because he is used to crossing out his words. It is true that after several redrafts, his style may be crystal clear. But when he takes the floor, he no longer has any means at his disposal to correct his stumbling speech.

Ah, yes. The need to constantly edit and revise. That explains my current profession.

Gustave Flaubert, a 19th-century French writer whose work ethic and precision with words one might well admire and imitate, even if his personal activities were best left behind the curtain, once wrote, “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”

And, I might add, it is in the act of writing that you realize not only do you have something to say, it is worth saying.

I also belong to a generation in which children were seen and not heard except on certain rare occasions and only after asking permission. But no one ever listened and people would often talk across them. That explains the difficulty that some of us have when speaking – sometimes hesitant, sometimes too fast as if we expect to be interrupted at any moment. This is perhaps why the desire to write came over me, like so many others, at the end of childhood. You hope that the adults will read what you write. That way, they will have to listen to you without interrupting and they will jolly well know what it is you have on your chest.

Listening — truly listening — is a great gift.

We may not understand all we hear, we may not agree with all we hear, but if we listen, we will learn, we will build bridges, we will encourage.

I was a child whose early, stumbling, terrible writings were listened to with patience and encouraged by adults. It was my peers who made me mute. They mocked, they misunderstood, they shrugged. Without the listening ears of a few grownups I respected and loved, I might not be a writer today.

Akin to truly listening is truly reading. There are few things more encouraging to a writer than knowing his words are being read. And not just read. Loved.

The announcement of this award seemed unreal to me and I was eager to know why you chose me. On that day I do not think I had ever been more acutely aware of how blind a novelist is when it comes to his own books, and how much more the readers know about what he has written than he does. A novelist can never be his own reader, except when he is ridding his manuscript of syntax errors, repetitions or the occasional superfluous paragraph. He only has a partial and confused impression of his books, like a painter creating a fresco on the ceiling, lying flat on a scaffold and working on the details, too close up, with no vision of the work as a whole…

So yes, the reader knows more about a book than the author himself. Something happens between a novel and its reader which is similar to the process of developing photographs, the way they did it before the digital age. The photograph, as it was printed in the darkroom, became visible bit by bit. As you read your way through a novel, the same chemical process takes place. But for such harmony to exist between the author and his reader, it is important never to overextend the reader – in the sense that we talk about singers overextending their voice – but to coax him imperceptibly, leaving enough space for the book to permeate him little by little, by means of an art resembling acupuncture, in which the needle merely has to be inserted in exactly the right spot to release the flow in the nervous system.

A certain short story comes to mind, one in which I purposely included certain themes but in which readers found other connections, better connections, than I intended. That was, I think, the first time I realized that a writer and a reader encounter different stories, though the words are the same.

The rest of Modiano’s excellent speech is dense with historical and literary references, and is literature itself. I highly recommend it to every writer, and to every reader who wonders where writers find their stories.

It and other speeches can be read at the Nobel website. Photos of the author can be viewed at The Telegraph, and an introduction to/review of some of his works may be read at The Guardian.

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