Learning that Patrick Modiano was the 15th Frenchman to win the Nobel Prize for literature since the first was awarded in 1901, beating such American favourites regularly passed over as Philip Roth, surely makes anyone interested in culture at least pause for breath…What is it about French literature that the rest of the world holds in such esteem? And it’s not those plain covers, classy admittedly, but full of snobbery too as if a picture on the jacket might lower the tone. These are not books for children after all.
The Swedish academy, in awarding the 2014 prize, described Modiano as ‘a Proust for our times’ since his work has to do with memory and he is troubled by loss, above all lost time. Born in 1945 to an Italian-Jewish father and Belgian actress mother, he has said: ‘Like everyone who has neither ground nor roots, I am obsessed by my prehistory. And my prehistory is the troubled and shameful period of the Occupation.’ And there is lots to be troubled about there. However, since it seems that only one of his 22 novels has been translated into English, The Search Warrant, it is hard for non-French speakers to judge. This novel touches on France’s recent history, in particular the round ups of Jews by fellow Frenchmen during World War Two, when Paris was occupied by Germans but the orders were given from Vichy, the so-called free zone. Those seized, including hundreds of children, were sent first to Drancy and then Auschwitz. French police using French buses were responsible for the roundups. French president Jacques Chirac apologised for French complicity in the tragedy only in 1995 and many French are still reluctant to address openly the issues of how their families behaved during those appalling five years.
It seems to me that any thinking person of a certain age who wants to write is – eventually -magnetically drawn to writing about the barbarity of the 20th century. For one who grew up in France it must be impossible to avoid those extremely long shadows. I was born several years after the end of World War 2 and in England but have spent much of the last year thinking about les années noires in France for a book I am working on. And last week, appropriately on the same day that the prize was announced, I saw the much acclaimed French film Violette, based on the life story of French writer Violette Leduc and her painful struggle to become a writer detailed in her bestselling memoir, La Batarde.
Apart from wondering why French films are always so long, so intense, so full of walks and bicycle rides through woods and so determined to leave nothing to the imagination, Violette is historically fascinating. Not only does the film feature a rather too young and beautiful Simone de Beauvoir winning the Prix Goncourt for her ground breaking The Second Sex, there is also much about the wartime black market as well as an abortion (illegal of course). It is visually stunning, full of fabulous 40’s fashions and plenty of those plain covered books with nothing but the title. So chic they reminded me of a Chanel jacket. Or was it the plentiful black market food that reminded me? But then apparently Modiano’s father survived the war by making black market deals with occupying Germans. One things for sure, it seems to me that just as important as remembering is not judging.