PARIS — With all due respect to the Cassandras of national decline and lovers of French bashing — the cherished pastime of denigrating all things French at every turn — Patrick Modiano's Nobel Prize for Literature win is excellent news.
Lovers of French literature will be the first to rejoice, but the prize is also proof that the torch of la littérature française continues to burn outside France. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius wasn't wrong when he said with regard to the prize that “its influence is inseparable” from that of French literature.
The prize comes just six years after the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to another great French writer, J. M. G. Le Clézio. Modiano is thus the 15th Frenchman to receive the prestigious prize — which means that France is world champion in the category even after Jean-Paul Sartre's Nobel refusal 50 years ago ushered in a long "punishment" period that didn't end until 1985 with Claude Simon.
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Patrick Modiano — Photo: Amazon.fr
France may not have oil fields, but it has Nobels.
So the Swedish academy's decision is a bit like a thumbing of the nose at the apostles of déclinisme. Despite recurring announcements of the decline — indeed imminent death — of French culture and particularly its literature, the prize is a feather in the French cap and a tribute to France's capacity to maintain its rank among nations.
Let the music play
Deploring the fact that American writer Philip Roth once again came away prize-less this year, columnist Emma Brockes opined in The Guardian, "There are lots of theories about Nobel "bias," few of them involving the possibility that writers from non-English-speaking countries, many of whom readers in the West have neither read nor heard of, might actually be quite good." In other words, who ever heard of Patrick Modiano?
"If you're looking at Patrick Modiano's Wikipedia page, raise your hand," one Newsweek editor quipped on Twitter.
It's true that Modiano is not well known in the United States, where only three of his novels have been published to date by a small university publisher. According to The New York Times, the English translation of his novel Rue des Boutiques Obscures that won the Prix Goncourt in 1978 (Missing Person, 1980), sold fewer than 2,500 copies.
But the Nobel Prize for Literature should change that. Other translations are due out in the coming weeks, and reprints have been ordered.
Dervila Cooke of Dublin City University, author of a book about Modiano, says that "a common description of his work is of its "petite musique" — its haunting little music."
Still, Modiano's work has been widely translated in Spanish, German and — of course — Swedish.
More generally, acquisitions of French books continue to increase in a certain number of countries, with Indian, Chinese and Brazilian publishers particularly interested in French literature. More and more publishers in New Delhi and Bombay are buying the rights to all the editions in English of a book or even an author's complete works.
The world changes, and poles of influence evolve. And it seems that French literature is far from having exhausted all its charms.