The fear of 'forgetting' that drives French Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano


On Thursday French author Patrick Modiano was named as the 2014 recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. In its citation the Swedish Academy said the prize had been awarded to honour “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation”. It is, above all, recognition of 40 years of an obsessive quest, motivated by the fear of forgetting. Here Mediapart journalist Ellen Salvi, who spent five years at the Sorbonne in Paris studying Modiano's work and who has met the media-shy writer in person, shares her insight into the past influences and “previous lives” that have helped shape his writing.

Reading articles is for subscribers only. Subscribe now.

It is an October evening in Paris. A giant silhouette, dressed in a beige raincoat, makes its way towards the Théâtre National de la Colline in the city's 20th arrondissement or district, where Inrocks magazine was holding its literary festival. It is 2007, though the year hardly matters, nor in fact does the location. The man has his hands in his pockets and his gaze lowered towards the pavement where his shadow seems to stretch into infinity.

In a few minutes Patrick Modiano will find himself in front of a packed hall to speak about his latest novel, Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue ('In the café of lost youth'). The kind of appearance he hates making and which he agrees to do only on rare occasions. Coming out of the shadows, speaking about himself in the first person, carrying out an autopsy on his own work...existing in the present. It is hell for a man who has never lived other than through his previous lives.