All I knew of Modiano was that he wrote about his past and that of his parents, which was intricately bound up with the years of the German Occupation of France, a topic I was about to introduce into my own fiction. Modiano’s true subject, I discovered, is the nature of identity and memory as it’s distilled through the past—in itself a Proustian conceit—and what I find fascinating about him is that his many novels, which take up a good portion of a bookshelf, in a way are like individual chapters of one book. His theme is unchanging; his style, “la petite musique,” as the French say, is virtually the same from book to book. There is nothing “big” about his work, and readers have grown accustomed to considering each succeeding volume as an added chapter to an ongoing literary project. His twenty-five published novels rarely are longer than 200 pages, and in them his characters, who seem to drift, under different names, into first this novel, then another, wander the streets of Paris looking for a familiar place, a remembered face, some link to their elusive past, some ghost from a half-remembered encounter that might shed some light on one’s history. Phone numbers and addresses are dredged up from the past, only to bring more cryptic clues and, if not dead ends, then the kind of silence that hides a deeper and more painful truth.
You open the latest Modiano and you know exactly where you are. The writer is artistically all of a piece. It’s his obsession with memory and the haunted lives of his protagonists which truly caught my attention, and especially how he returns time and again to mine this subject. As someone with a very broken chronology, with a memory of childhood that is in many ways unreliable (how much has been planted there? How much of it is real? What’s been removed by doubt or by someone else’s will?), I saw in Modiano how the capriciousness of memory can in itself become the subject of a novel. And because back then I found plot a troublesome thing to handle in my fiction, the idea of creating a narrator in search of a story became the basis for my first novel. I sent Modiano a copy of it when it was published and, not surprisingly, heard nothing back.
It’s been a year since Nobel laureate and Irish poet Seamus Heaney passed away. His publishers are releasing a final collection of his poetry in November. In The Irish Independent, a brief retrospective on Heaney’s legacy, which includes his wife’s unique way of expressing her gratitude to his friends. You could also read Trent Morris’s tribute to Heaney for The Millions.
You may have heard that Alice Munro couldn’t make it to Sweden to accept this year’s Nobel prize. Instead, she made a video, which you can watch in full on the Nobel Prize committee’s website. (You could also read Ben Dolnick’s beginner’s guide to her work, or else read my essay on the meaning of her win.) (h/t The Paris Review)
And once the noise of the train has been swallowed up he realizes there isn’t the perfect quiet around that he would have expected. Plenty of disturbance here and there, a shaking of the dry August leaves that wasn’t wind, a racket of unknown, unseen birds chastising him.
Alice Munro has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature! If you’re new to her writing, here’s our beginner’s guide. Or read our review of her latest Dear Life, which Ben Dolnick claims has “the intelligence itself, the compassionate but merciless awareness that she has shone through all her hundreds of stories.” And in our Books of the Millennium series, Michelle Huneven says she returns to Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories”for sustenance, for instruction, and for pleasure.”
Popular bookmakers Ladbrokes have announced their opening odds for the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. Smart money seems to favor Haruki Murakami, who would surely take the prize if it depended on recent book sales. Meanwhile the next two favorites are Joyce Carol Oates (6/1) and Hungarian author Péter Nádas (7/1). All signs point to this being another year of disappointment for Philip Roth’s fans – his odds of winning stand at 16/1.
The premier English-language translator of modern Chinese fiction, Howard Goldblatt, says flatly that Western audiences don’t read Chinese books. However, with last year’s Nobel Prize win for Mo Yan (and the rave review his novel Pow! received in the Times), Goldblatt and other scholars are hoping that could change.