MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Winning the Nobel Prize in literature seemed unreal to French author Patrick Modiano when he got the news earlier today. Though few Americans have heard of him, Modiano is well-known in his own country for his spare novels. They often deal with the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War. As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, his fascination with this era stems from his own family's experiences during that time.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: British bettors had actually given Patrick Modiano pretty good odds to win the Nobel this year. Even so, the announcement came as a surprise to most people, even those who know his work, like Charles O'Keefe, professor emeritus of French at Denison University.
O'KEEFE: I was a bit surprised in this sense; Modiano is a literary phenomenon in France. The academics love him, and the public loves him. He's a bestseller, but outside of France, he's less known and not generally perceived as being part of any sort of sophisticated literary culture.
NEARY: Modiano has written children's books and even co-wrote the screenplay for Luis Malle's acclaimed film, "Lacombe, Lucien." But, O'Keefe says, Modiano is best known for his novels.
O'KEEFE: He weaves great stories out of the simplest of material, and his prose in French is a lot like time Tamir's (ph) I might say. It's very simple, it's very sober yet it causes a great deal of reflection.
NEARY: A cause for reflection because so much of his work deals in some way with the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. His parents met during that time. His mother was a Belgian actress, his father a Jewish businessman who worked with the Nazis during the occupation. Andre Benhaim, professor of French literature at Princeton University, says that cast a long shadow over Modiano's life.
ANDRE BENHAIM: He has said repeatedly that the occupation is for him his prehistory. He considers that if there hadn't been an occupation of Paris by the Germans, he wouldn't have been born.
NEARY: Modiano's first three novels, beginning with "The Place Of The Star" are viewed as a trilogy that deals explicitly with the occupation, says Denison Professor Charles O'Keefe.
O'KEEFE: They are emotionally violent. They start off with great emotional violence, and one might even say madness, reflecting Modiano's attempt to deal with the horror of the Holocaust.
NEARY: Gradually, says Princeton Professor Andre Benhaim, the books become more about people's memories.
BENHAIM: People, mostly in the 1960s, who are in search of their pasts - and they always refer or go back to their youth or the past of their parents who lived during the occupation.
NEARY: One of Modiano's best known books is "Dora Bruder," which began when he read a classified ad in an old newspaper. Parents were searching for a 15-year-old girl named Dora Bruder, and he set out to learn what happened to her. Professor O'Keefe.
O'KEEFE: He just tries to track this young girl, and she keeps eluding him. But he testifies to her. And when you get finished reading it, the figure 6 million Jews were killed starts acquiring even greater power because you realize that every single one of those figures was a human being whose humanity was violated.
NEARY: Modiano writes slender books - most are around 150 pages. But, says Benjamin Ivry, his books are never simple. Ivry is a journalist who has written about Modiano for the Jewish magazine, the Forward.
BENJAMIN IVRY: If you're interested in the question of what do you do when one or another of your parents is not an ideal forebear, but nevertheless you have to sort of live with it, these are things that Modiano touches on, but without the sort of cheery, Hollywood, happy ending. That's why he keeps writing and why we like to keep reading him.
NEARY: Now that he's a Nobel Laureate, Patrick Modiano may soon become much better known outside his homeland. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.