A new translation of 2014 Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano’s stories, Suspended Sentences, comes out next month. The translator, Mark Polizotti, also happens to be publisher in chief of MoMa. These novellas are needed: Modiano in English and in print is very hard to find.
After Alice Munro last year, Modliano is a return to tradition for the Nobel awarders – a relatively unknown European man. Though he is a best-selling writer at home, fewer than half of his works have been translated into English. He succeeds Camus and Satre (who refused the prize) in a long line of French laureates. He’s a 20th century figure: Born just after the end of WWII in July 1945, he published his first book, La Place de l’Etoile, in Paris in 1968. Its German translation won an award in 2010 as a “major post-Holocaust work”, but it is still not available in English.
The same themes of identity and memory echo in his work, as a “look inside” both Missing Person and The Search Warrant will show you. He sees himself as “always writing the same book”, putting his personal story in social context. He has called himself “a plant that grew out of a dung heap”, and, more directly, at least at first, “a product of the Occupation, the time when one could simultaneously be a trafficker of black market, a gestapiste of the Lauriston street and a pursued man. It is in this time when I met my father, a cosmopolitan Jew, and my mother, a comedian of Belgian origin, in the pre-war cinema”. Follwing his mother Louise Colpijn’s line of work, Modiano has also written film scripts. Lacombe, Lucien (1974), about a teenager in German-occupied France in WWII, won the French Film Syndicate of Cinema Critics Award and a BAFTA.
On accepting his award, Modiano recommended we read his latest book, Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier [So that you don’t get lost in the neighbourhood], because the last one always stays in your memory, leaves you wanting more.
For English readers, the latest book is now Suspended Sentences. It leaves us asking: Can we, should we ever leave the past behind? What difference can a chance meeting make? What can we remember, and how much of that is “real”?