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Patrick Modiano wins Nobel Prize in literature

Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, the world’s highest literary honor, on Thursday.

The Swedish committee praised the 69-year-old French writer for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, recommended that readers unfamiliar with Modiano’s work begin with “Missing Person” (“Rue des boutiques obscures”), a novel from 1978 that describes a man who lost his identity during the Paris Occupation. “It’s a fun book,” Englund said. “He’s playing with the genre.”

“His books are always variations of the same theme,” Englund said, “about memory, about loss, about identity, about seeking. I don’t think he’s difficult to read. You can read him easily, one of his books in the afternoon, have dinner, and read another in the evening.”

Modiano, who lives in Paris, has previously won the Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française and the Prix Goncourt.

Although he has published more than 20 books, including children’s books, few of them are available in translation in the United States. “He’s a well known name in France — not anywhere else,” Englund said.

(Thursday morning at 9:00 a.m., “Missing Person” was No. 76,199 on Amazon. By 4:30 p.m., it was No. 6.)

Akane Kawakami, a professor of French literature at Birkbeck, University of London, said, “Modiano’s novels often read like detective novels in which the detective is inept, awkward or compromised, a hapless but likable narrator who ends up uncovering — if not solving — a mystery with its roots in the ‘annees noires’ of the Occupation. This is a period with which he seems obsessed, although he was born several months after the end of the war in 1945.”

“Missing Person” is published in the United States by a small indie press owned by David R. Godine. This morning, Godine missed the Nobel announcement because he was in Dublin, N.H., staking his dahlias in the garden. Reached by phone, he exclaimed, “This means we’ll be ahead this year!”

Modiano is the second French Nobel winner that Godine publishes. Years ago, he went to the Frankfurt Book Festival and asked, “Who are the great writers who have never been published in English?” He signed Modiano and J. M. G. Le Clézio, who won the Nobel in 2008.

“It’s not until they win the Nobel that we actually sell copies,” Godine said. “But we never remainder them, so we always have copies left.”

Godine’s favorite Modiano book is “Catherine Certitude,” with illustrations by Sempé. “It’s about this ballerina so shortsighted she can’t see. And her father is in this very risky business — he’s clearly bootlegging stuff across the border. It’s the wackiest book we’ve ever published.”

Yale University Press will publish Modiano’s “Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas” next month.

Modiano is the 11th literature laureate born in France. (Almost 70 percent of all the literature laureates have been born in Europe.)

The $1.2 million prize is given in recognition of an author’s lifetime of work. The award will be formally conferred at a ceremony in Stockholm in December.

The Swedish Academy received 210 nominations for this year’s literature prize — 36 were first-time nominees. The committee’s deliberations are confidential and kept sealed for 50 years.

Last year’s Nobel literature award went to Canadian writer Alice Munro. No American has won the literature prize since Toni Morrison in 1993.

On Friday, the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced.