The enigma of Modiano ?


Well Monday see’s the first post nobel book by Patrick Modiano come out its only on kindle for now by Yale press world republic of letters imprints are bringing out Suspended sentences a collection of three novellas by him , they are described as an ode to a bygone Paris and the dark days of Nazi rules and the writers own experience  , this sounds rather like the search warrant , which those of you that read my review know I instantly fell in love with .So we now need to know how this writer hasn’t ever really taken of in the English speaking world ? So why has this not happened , well has he not won a big prize ? no he won the Prix Goncourt ok a long time ago but it is the biggest prize in French literature , he has also won a number of big european prizes before the Nobel win so no that isn’t a reason .Not enough books ? no he has written 26 novels so there is a body of work by him .His books are they  too long ? no they tend to be below 200 pages which means they are actually cheap to translate .The style of the books tend to be Literary detective book missed with memories a sort of Sebald Eco mix so that isn’t really a reason for people not to buy them as both those writers are among the most popular selling writers in translation .Setting now this is maybe a problem a lot of his books look at the French war years , now I think in the 21st century maybe we are ready to rewrite the view of this period , yes it was bad , but people still had to live and this is at heart what a lot of his books seem to be about the everyday going ons of wartime France .He is called the New Proust I have seen , now for me this is another kiss of death line , it reminds me of the bands in the late 80’s and early 90’s that were given the tagline “The new smiths ” , i for one tend to be wary when a writer is directly compared to one of the greats of his own countries literature !! I did say on Grants post for his review of Honeymoon , which he had already order before the win after reading my review of search warrant , that maybe he was a little too subtle for English readers , in the fact that its good writing but not exciting , rather like Pamuk and LLosa both nobel winners that maybe just write  great books but not Standout books .But that said they both have been published most of their careers ,but maybe this is another reason , they have both been published mainly by one publisher were as Modiano books have come out on a number of publishers .Another reason maybe he is a little shy and isn’t interviewed a lot ,not a full enigma like Elena Ferrante or Thomas Pynchon  which maybe is a problem we like a writer we can’t see and ones we can see ,  but somepne  in-between we maybe just don’t get ! well a post of questions no answers I hope the Nobel win brings some more books by him I for one will be reading them .Maybe now he has won we will finally get to like him !

Have you a theory ?

23 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. hastanton
    Oct 24, 2014 @ 19:10:34

    Ha! I nearly bought his latest one in France this week! I think the reason he hasn’t been ‘picked up’ before is that his historical settings and dilemmas this period create are very specifically French. Of course, like all great writers connections can be made and his themes aren’t only understood in France but speak to us all


  2. 1streading
    Oct 24, 2014 @ 19:11:32

    Thanks for the mention.
    It’s difficult to say why Modiano isn’t better known here – but then he’s hardly the first. The same was the case with Herta Muller or Le Clezio. The UK can be quite an introverted nation, even when it comes to books – people obsess over the Booker but dismiss the Nobel when it’s awarded to someone they haven’t heard of!


    • winstonsdad
      Oct 24, 2014 @ 21:28:18

      I feel he is an easier writer in some ways than both of those although similar reasons why ghey were not better known Muller had three publishers at the time for her books in english and Le clezio maybe a tad to french for english taste


  3. kaggsysbookishramblings
    Oct 24, 2014 @ 19:44:20

    I’d very much like to read him – though his books instantly became hard to find and expensive when he wond the prize. I shall be looking out for some!


  4. Lisa Hill
    Oct 24, 2014 @ 21:23:04

    I don’t have an answer to your question, but I do want to compliment you on this post! What a breadth and depth of reading you have, Stu, you are the only English reviewer I know who can chat about Modiano as if he’s an old friend. Across the English speaking planet everyone else was scratching their heads and saying ‘who?’ But you’ve read him, you know about him, and you can analyse the win in the context it deserves.
    As we say in Australia, your blood’s worth bottling!


    • winstonsdad
      Oct 24, 2014 @ 21:30:31

      That is how i felt after I’d read him like he was a writer i had always known and want to know dont think there is an answer maybe just thinking out why ge hasn’t quite grasped us in the english speaking world


      • Lisa Hill
        Oct 24, 2014 @ 21:59:40

        Hopefully that will change when there are some books available! I’m not going to buy the Kindle edition because my kindle is old and unreliable, so I’m *tapping my foot* just trying to be patient and waiting for the print editions to catch up.

  5. Romy Paris
    Oct 24, 2014 @ 22:20:53

    Well, I for one, wasn’t scratching my head. Since reading Dora Bruder when it came out in 1999, I’ve read every single one of his books and been thoroughly convinced of his genius. However, I’ve managed to get not one single one of my American friends who read French to give him even a try. Why? I have absolutely no idea. Maybe with the Nobel . . .but as hastanton said, these thin almost plot less books short on resolution and long on missing information are very very French and maybe Frenchness scares them off. I’m adicted . . .


    • winstonsdad
      Oct 24, 2014 @ 22:23:37

      I think that what makes him more appealing there isnt a counterpart in english for him his frenchness is what really appeals to me the subtle style of his writing


  6. Col
    Oct 25, 2014 @ 15:38:55

    I always think we are pretty ‘conservative’ here in the UK – I know that would certainly be true of my own reading habits and it’s only since I started reading blogs by you and others that my tastes have widened. I do wonder if there’s still a touch of arrogance mixed with a suspicion of foreign fiction about us – I think in popular UK culture we still have a seeming aversion to things not written or filmed or produced in English. Personally I’d never heard of Modiano till the Nobel and that’s simply ignorance and short-sightedness on my part. Now I’ve read more about his work on your blog I’ve no excuse from here on!


  7. Bellezza
    Oct 25, 2014 @ 22:51:24

    I was excited to read of him on LitLove’s blog, and now here at yours, so of course I had to go over to our library’s website to reserve something (anything!) by him. But, of course, they had nothing, and so I’ve pre-ordered the three novels which will be released on October 28 from I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one for which he seems new, but that you join me in that, too.


  8. farmlanebooks
    Oct 26, 2014 @ 12:22:00

    It is an interesting question! I guess we’ll have to read him and see if we can work it out. Some authors just don’t translate well and I’ve found this to be especially true of French ones where the beauty of their language and its multiple meanings is lost when transferred to English. I’ll read him at some point and see if I can work it out!


  9. Richard
    Oct 26, 2014 @ 18:08:57

    Stu, I think this has less to do with Modiano per se than with his publishing (and promotional) history in English. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen his books in English in a U.S. bookstore, perhaps because the two big translations I know of are about 10 years old and possibly either not well promoted or out of print or both. I read Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person) in January or February this year and enjoyed it quite a bit.


  10. Claire 'Word by Word'
    Oct 27, 2014 @ 09:37:56

    I just read a review by Nancy of Modiano’s L’herbe des Nuits this weekend and from her description of that book, I was reminded of Murakami, with his slipping in and out of the past or into another reality. I was intrigued by her analysis and asked at the end of it what made it a 5 star read, something that was hard to articulate, suggesting that as readers we just have to pick up his books and find out.

    The book she read was in French but the review is in English, I’d recommend taking a look, you can find it here:

    Nancy at Ipsofactdotme reviewing Patrick Modiano’s L’herbe des Nuits


  11. N@ncy
    Oct 27, 2014 @ 09:57:26

    I enjoyed your thoughts about Modiano. I just read L’herbe des Nuits (2012) and it was very good!


  12. Mytwostotinki
    Oct 27, 2014 @ 11:13:18

    A very good and thoughtful post. Considering the extremely small number of translations (0.7% of the fiction books published in US and Britain are translations) it is unfortunately not the exception but the rule that great authors and works go unnoticed in the English-speaking world, and most translations seem to be published by small publishers that have not the marketing machinery and distribution network than the big publishers that seem to focus almost exclusively on English-writing authors. Translations get additionally fewer reviews in relevant media and are frequently labelled as highbrow or demanding and go frequently almost unnoted by the potential readers. The comparatively small circulation of editions of translated books make the translation costs also an issue: translated books are more expensive, require higher marketing costs and therefore not very much in demand by the publishers who prefer to cater the allegedly conservative tastes of the readers.


  13. Vishy
    Oct 29, 2014 @ 13:37:55

    Loved your post, Stu! Enjoyed reading the comments too. I think all of Modiano’s books have been published in English translation by Verba Mundi. I think that the problem is that none of the big English / American publishers have published his work and his work is published only by small indie publishing houses and so it is not well known among English speaking / reading readers. I think this is the case with most European literature. I personally feel that British and American readers (and readers from the rest of the world) read all kinds of books and it is just the myopic vision of mainstream publishers which prevents them from publishing these great works. Readers read plot-based books and readers read books which are not based on plots. I don’t know why publishers are making assumptions regarding that, assuming that readers in English like only plot based books. I find that new translations of ‘The Three Musketeers’ and ‘Madame Bovary’ keep cropping up every other year but it is hard to find translations of contemporary French authors. I am trying to find Philippe Delerm’s ‘The Small Pleasures of Life’ and though it is a classic and easily available in French, the English translation is out of print and is hard to come by. One another French writer who is totally under-represented in English is Nicole Brossard. I discovered her last year and she is one of the great prose stylists of the modern era. Though most of her books are available in English translation, they are by indie publishing houses and so are hard to come by. Also the fact that she is Canadian and writes in French is a fact which is working against her – she is not eligible for the Booker prize (she writes in French) and she is not eligible for the Prix Goncourt (she is not a French citizen) and so her works seem to fall through the gap. The sad thing is that though she has been writing for more than 40 years and her prose is exquisite and the themes she addresses are contemporary and very relevant and in my opinion she deserves the Nobel prize, she is not well known among English-speaking/reading readers.


    • Lisa Hill
      Oct 30, 2014 @ 07:48:06

      Hi Vishy:)
      I have to laugh: last year Emma from Book Around the Corner ‘gave’ me Philippe Delerm’s ‘The Small Pleasures of Life’ for my Christmas Humbook – and I had the opposite problem because she wanted me to try reading it in French. I had to do a special order through Fishpond in the end….


  14. Vishy
    Nov 02, 2014 @ 08:15:38

    Hi Lisa 🙂 I remember that Humbook time 🙂 I love the fact that Emma is trying to make the rest of us read in French 🙂 Hopefully one day we will all write a post in French in our blogs and comment on each others’ blogs in French. Hope you had fun / are having fun reading Delerm’s book. I am thinking that this year, if I don’t get a translated copy, I will get the French original and read it. That way my French will improve too. Happy reading 🙂


    • Lisa Hill
      Nov 02, 2014 @ 10:50:02

      Hi Vishy,
      Je l’aime Humbooks. La belle Emma, elle est bonne!
      Fortunately they are short vignettes, only a page or so which makes it easier for me. I must brush up my oral French too, we are going to spend a week in the Dordogne next year and my experience in the regions is that speaking French makes it much easier.


  15. celindascott
    Dec 30, 2014 @ 17:37:10

    Having now read two of his books in our French “cercle de lecture,” _La Rue des Boutiques Obscurs_ at _L’Herbe des Nuits_, plus a detailed on-line biography,I think it might be-at least in part– because the issues of Resistance vs. Collaboration with Nazi Germany (the Vichy gov’t) and the Algerian desire for independence 20 years later are not clear cut at present. The French are sorting out what happened during these periods. Modiano’s own father, it appears, worked with the Black Market during WW II. Many Americans tend to not know anything at all about the Resistance–a surprise to me, because I was in college in the late 1950s when Camus won the Nobel Prize–but it’s left out of high school textbooks I’ve seen recently (“no room”). As Americans, we have our own sense of national guilt (slavery, the “Trail of Tears,” lack of civil rights for blacks until the late 1960s, CIA waterboarding disclosures recently, the invasion of Iraq (still being examined as to whether it was noble or ignominious), etc.–but on WW II, we are mostly proud of our record and I like to think that the French who fought in the Resistance can be justly proud. But there is ambiguity there that some French are dealing with–how easy it was to be taken in by the Vichy gov’t, how cruelly some “collabos” were treated after WW II, etc. My main point: in America we are uncomfortable with ambiguity about whether or not we are “heros.” In France, their own ambiguity seems to be on the conscience of many.


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October 2014


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