The Swedish Academy has named Patrick Modiano the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in literature. But could the prize in fact be an honorary award for another author? Did the prize committee mean to recognize someone else entirely when they awarded it to the French novelist? The new laureate seemed to suggest as much when he reacted with surprise and confusion to the announcement of his win. “I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Modiano said. “It was like I was a bit detached from it all, as if a doppelgänger with my name had won.” The author added that he was keen to learn why he had been selected, as if he had reason to doubt the committee’s motives.
The Swedish Academy’s pronouncements on the prize winner give some clues as to who Modiano’s “doppelgänger” might be. The selection committee stated that “this is someone who has written many books … about memory, identity and aspiration,” and praised him “for the art of memory with which he evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation.”
These broad descriptions seem carefully crafted to pay homage to the work of Modiano while also acknowledging the Nobel-worthy literature of his fellow countryman, Georges Perec, nine years his senior. Like Modiano, Perec’s work is haunted by the Nazi Occupation; having lost his Jewish parents to the Holocaust as a young boy, Perec returned obsessively to the place and time of his childhood in pre-war and wartime Paris, as can be seen in such texts as Je me souviens (I Remember) and W, ou le souvenir d’enfance (W, or the Memory of Childhood). “Memory, identity and aspiration” are the key themes of the prize winner’s work, as the Nobel committee aptly put it.
Literary reviewers and commentators also speak of the prize winner in terms that apply equally to Perec and Modiano. This is surprising to say the least, as it suggests that the Nobel committee has dictated its intentions to the reviewers and requested their complicity in a covert scheme of double homage. The scenario evokes the fictional worlds of both Modiano and Perec: literary reviewers and academics may be conveying the Nobel committee’s purpose in code, or perhaps even unbeknownst to themselves, unconsciously.
Writing for the BBC, one reviewer, Henri Astier, says of Modiano’s novels that “They usually centre on young men cast adrift […] in 1960s Paris. There is a sense of threat, but little is explained.” For readers of Perec, Astier’s description is sure to call to mind the author’s début novel Les Choses (Things), subtitled “A story of the 1960s.” Moreover, whole chapters of Les Choses consist of characters wandering aimlessly in Paris without plans or projects, while undefined terrors periodically take hold of them when they consider their uncertain place in the world. But the idea of being “cast adrift” applies also to Un homme qui dort (A Man Asleep), whose protagonist abandons his studies and wanders without purpose or direction in Paris, just as it does the character in Perec’s film Les lieux d’une fugue, a child who runs away from home and sleeps in the street like a lost orphan.
Works such as Perec’s Les lieux d’une fugue embroider on the difficulty of reconstructing the events they portray, which at times makes the framing narration intrude significantly on the plot. But Astier remarks that “The plot, however, matters much less than the feelings evoked by his deceptively simple prose. Blurred memory plays a key role,” he adds. “Modiano’s narrators try to make sense of half-remembered events from their youth, looking back through a glass darkly.” Interestingly, Astier notes that “The lack of clarity goes hand in hand with geographical precision – with each Paris location overlaid with layers of imperfect memories.”
These references to geography make clear that the critic is referring to Perec’s role as chronicler of Parisian space. In abstract and reflective works such as Espèces d’espaces (Species of Spaces) and the meticulous documentation project Lieux (Places), Perec, the most spatial of modern writers, took upon himself the impossible task of exhaustively describing urban places, sometimes returning to certain areas over a period of many years to patiently record what he called the “infra-ordinary.” The most moving aspect of Lieux is no doubt the project concerning the street where Perec grew up before his parents were deported by the Nazis. Perec documented the demolition of houses along the rue Vilin in the 1970s, and his notes and photographs of his ruined childhood home dramatize the traumatic legacy of the Occupation and the fragility historical memory. As Rupert Thomson succinctly puts it, speaking of Modiano, “[Perec] is the poet of the Occupation and a spokesman for the disappeared.”
Thomson may have tipped his hand, however, when he said that Modiano’s books are “puzzles,” as the statement refers quite unmistakably to Perec. After all, Perec composed the crossword puzzles for the magazine Le Point, and puzzles of various kinds can be found in many of his works, not only as a central motif, such as in La vie mode d’emploi (Life, a User’s Manual), but also as a principle of composition, such as in his tour-de-force La Disparition (A Void), a novel written entirely without the letter e. Anton Voyl, the novel’s protagonist, tries to uncover the haunting absence at the core of his world which remains quite literally unspeakable. Once again, Thomson’s assessment of Modiano obliquely hits its mark: “what seems to interest him most is the gaps in people’s lives – the bits that have been removed or repressed, the bits that can’t be accounted for.”
There remains the puzzle of the Nobel committee’s motive in their apparent work of double homage. Perec died in 1982, so he can’t of course be the official recipient of a lifetime award today. Perhaps the committee is attempting to make up for a lapse in judgment in the past. Perhaps, in a tragicomic error of taste, the dignified Swedish Academy simply could not envision the goofy, wild-haired genius at the podium in Stockhom.