Patrick Modi­ano, who won the 2014 Nobel Prize for lit­er­a­ture, has recent­ly seen a flur­ry of atten­tion here in the U.S., where he had been rel­a­tive­ly unknown until the announce­ment of his Nobel win. Modiano’s first book, La Place de l’É­toile, was pub­lished in May, 1968, the time of the famous stu­dent protests in Paris and a year before the sem­i­nal 1969 French Holo­caust film The Sor­row and the Pity by Mar­cel Ophuls came out and jolt­ed France into con­scious­ness of what had hap­pened dur­ing World War II and the extent of the col­lab­o­ra­tion by the Vichy gov­ern­ment. Modiano’s oth­er works involve grap­pling – direct­ly and indi­rect­ly – with the after effects of that time both on indi­vid­u­als and the city of Paris itself.

Modi­ano’s work con­tin­ues to be an impor­tant lens through which we view Paris and French Jew­ish life and cul­ture. In the after­math of the mur­ders of Jews both at Char­lie Heb­do and the kosher super­mar­ket in Paris in Jan­u­ary, 2015, look­ing back at what The New York­er had to say about Modi­ano in Octo­ber, 2014 is eeri­ly sig­nif­i­cant: It will not have escaped the atten­tion of the Nobel com­mit­tee that Modiano’s win comes at a time when anti-Semi­tism in France is on the rise, as is the rate of French Jews’ emi­gra­tion to Israel. The fear that French Jews are not safe in their own land, that French Jew­ish cul­ture may van­ish, is once again pal­pa­ble, and real.” 

While a new nov­el, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neigh­bor­hood, will be pub­lished lat­er this year by Houghton Mif­flin Har­court (pub­lished in France in 2014), and Modi­ano’s Dora Brud­er was recent­ly pub­lished by Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, we turn our atten­tion to Sus­pend­ed Sen­tences, a vol­ume of novel­las pub­lished by Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press this past Novem­ber. Specif­i­cal­ly, though, we turn to the trans­la­tor of the vol­ume, Mark Poliz­zot­ti, who is also cur­rent­ly trans­lat­ing Modi­ano’s mem­oir Pedi­gree, to learn more about his deci­sion to trans­late Modi­ano and his thoughts on Modi­ano and his work. 

Beth Kissileff: You’ve trans­lat­ed over 40 books — why did you choose to be involved with this?

Mark Poliz­zot­ti: I am drawn to writ­ers with a gift for spare­ness, who say a lot with a lit­tle. Modiano’s books are so short, so few words. But one can tell so much in a sen­tence with these lit­tle impres­sion­is­tic touch­es. It is like a Mon­et — if you look too close­ly it’s just daubs of paint, but when you stand back, you can see a cathedral.

Trans­lat­ing him is a won­der­ful exer­cise; one has to bring all of one’s lin­guis­tic abil­i­ties to bear. There is a real beau­ty and love­li­ness to his prose that I tried hard to con­vey in Eng­lish. It takes real tal­ent to say some­thing in few words, as he does, to give each word res­o­nance and weight.

I was sur­prised when he won the Nobel. On the sur­face, he seems light­weight even – so indi­rect, such light­ness of tone. But in real­i­ty he is deal­ing with some of the weight­i­est issues of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. It’s just that he doesn’t beat his chest about it the way some writ­ers do.

BK: Why did Modi­ano come to promi­nence now?

MP: Modi­ano is part of the first gen­er­a­tion to ask ques­tions about what real­ly hap­pened dur­ing the war. Despite the nation­al myth pro­mot­ed by De Gaulle, peo­ple in France did col­lab­o­rate, active­ly or passively.

When Modiano’s first book [La Place de l’É­toile, not yet in Eng­lish, the name allud­ing to both the star Jews had to wear and an actu­al loca­tion in Paris ] came out in 1968, a year before The Sor­row and the Pity, that nation­al myth was begin­ning to crumble.

The first-per­son nar­ra­tor of that book is a self-hat­ing Jew. The whole ques­tion about Judaism and anti-Semi­tism, hatred and self hatred, is pulled into one char­ac­ter. Modiano’s two great influ­ences for La Place de l’É­toile were Proust and Céllne, who between them embody all the con­tra­dic­tions and com­plex­i­ties of France’s rela­tion­ship to Judaism.

BK: Have you met him? Any anec­dotes to share? 

MP: I have not met him. I’m told he is very gra­cious, very shy, retir­ing. On the one hand, I’m sure he’s delight­ed by the Nobel Prize, but he prob­a­bly does not like being a pub­lic fig­ure. When I was work­ing on the trans­la­tion I sent him a query about some per­son­al ref­er­ences, to make sure I trans­lat­ed them cor­rect­ly. He wrote me a let­ter – appar­ent­ly, he doesn’t do email, this was all hand­writ­ten — with a vast amount of infor­ma­tion, even more than I had asked.

To me, this let­ter is very much in keep­ing with the voice that comes out of the books, an indi­ca­tor of authen­tic­i­ty. There are some writ­ers who are won­der­ful on the page but are wretched human beings. In Modiano’s case, I felt this was a con­fir­ma­tion, that the gen­eros­i­ty I sensed on the page was true to its author.

BK: What is the role of his own per­son­al his­to­ry in his writing?

MP: In his own per­son­al his­to­ry, his moth­er was con­stant­ly dis­ap­pear­ing, on tour as an actress, and his father always seemed to want to keep him away, by send­ing him to board­ing school, the army, and so on.

He rarely men­tions this, but his younger broth­er died when he was ten, I believe of menin­gi­tis. Modi­ano was not there when it hap­pened, but rather away at board­ing school.

One day his father showed up at school to take him home, and on the way back, he told him Your broth­er died.” Modi­ano was twelve at the time and he seems nev­er to have got­ten over it.

He talks about it in his mem­oir, Pedi­gree, which I’m trans­lat­ing now.

BK: Why is so lit­tle of Modiano’s work trans­lat­ed until now? Why is it so hard to get Amer­i­can read­ers to read in translation? 

MP: Amer­i­can pub­lish­ing has the sense that Amer­i­can read­ers pre­fer to read Amer­i­cans. When a for­eign author breaks through, like Bolaño or Knaus­gaard, it’s con­sid­ered a fluke. Will the Nobel bring Modi­ano last­ing recog­ni­tion in this coun­try? We’ll see.

BK: In the novel­la Flow­ers of Ruin, Modi­ano writes, Why both­er chas­ing ghosts and try­ing to solve insol­u­ble mys­ter­ies when life was there in all its sim­plic­i­ty beneath the sun?” Is this also char­ac­ter­is­tic of him?

MP: There are moments of great light­ness in his work, and of great consolation.

BK: The best way to under­stand this writer is to end with a quote. This is from the novel­la After­im­age: And so, feel­ing help­less, he’d tak­en those pho­tos so that the place where his friend and his friend’s loved ones had lived would at least be pre­served on film. But the court­yard, the square, and the desert­ed build­ings under the sun made their absence even more irremediable.”

Mark Poliz­zot­ti is an accom­plished author, edi­tor, review­er, and head of the pub­li­ca­tions pro­gram at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art in New York.

Beth Kissileff is the edi­tor of Read­ing Gen­e­sis (Con­tin­u­um Books, 2014) an anthol­o­gy of aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing about Gen­e­sis. Her nov­el Ques­tion­ing Return is under review for pub­li­ca­tion and she is writ­ing a sec­ond nov­el and vol­ume of short sto­ries. She has taught at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh, Car­leton Col­lege, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, Smith Col­lege and Mount Holyoke College.

Beth Kissileff is in the process of fundrais­ing and writ­ing grants to devel­op a pro­gram to assist rab­bis of all denom­i­na­tions with writ­ing and pub­lish­ing books. Kissileff is a rab­binic spouse and author of the nov­el Ques­tion­ing Return as well as edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Read­ing Gen­e­sis: Begin­ings.