The Writer without Static.

I finally got around to reading Patrick Modiano’s Nobel lecture (in English, because I am lazy; here‘s the original French), and I liked it a lot; here are some of the bits that particularly struck me:

A novelist can never be his own reader, except when he is ridding his manuscript of syntax errors, repetitions or the occasional superfluous paragraph. He only has a partial and confused impression of his books, like a painter creating a fresco on the ceiling, lying flat on a scaffold and working on the details, too close up, with no vision of the work as a whole.

Writing is a strange and solitary activity. There are dispiriting times when you start working on the first few pages of a novel. Every day, you have the feeling you are on the wrong track. This creates a strong urge to go back and follow a different path. It is important not to give in to this urge, but to keep going. It is a little like driving a car at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility. You have no choice, you cannot go into reverse, you must keep going forward while telling yourself that all will be well when the road becomes more stable and the fog lifts.

When you are about to finish a book, you feel as if it is starting to break away and is already breathing the air of freedom, like schoolchildren in class the day before the summer break. They are distracted and boisterous and no longer pay attention to their teacher. I would go so far as to say that as you write the last paragraphs, the book displays a certain hostility in its haste to free itself from you. And it leaves you, barely giving you time to write out the last word. It is over – the book no longer needs you and has already forgotten you. From now on, it will discover itself through the readers.

[. . .]

I always think twice before reading the biography of a writer I admire. Biographers sometimes latch onto small details, unreliable eyewitness accounts, character traits that appear puzzling or disappointing – all of which is like the crackling sound that messes with radio transmissions, making the music and the voices impossible to hear. It is only by actually reading his books that we gain intimacy with a writer. This is when he is at his best and he is speaking to us in a low voice without any of the static.

[. . .]

With the passing of the years, each neighbourhood, each street in a city evokes a memory, a meeting, a regret, a moment of happiness for those who were born there and have lived there. Often the same street is tied up with successive memories, to the extent that the topography of a city becomes your whole life, called to mind in successive layers as if you could decipher the writings superimposed on a palimpsest.

[. . .]

Themes of disappearance, identity and the passing of time are closely bound up with the topography of cities. That is why since the 19th century, cities have been the territory of novelists, and some of the greatest of them are linked to a single city: Balzac and Paris, Dickens and London, Dostoyevsky and Saint Petersburg, Tokyo and Nagai Kafū, Stockholm and Hjalmar Söderberg.

He quotes Yeats and Mandelstam, which makes me like him all the more, and refers to “My distant relative, the painter Amedeo Modigliani” — anybody know the etymology of the Sephardic name? (And if there are any Modiano fans reading this, I’d be glad of recommendations of favorite books.)


  1. The family history is here. The family migrated to Salonika from the Italian town of Modigliana in the 1500s. Not all Jewish Modianos/Modiglianis/Modiglianos are necessarily related.

  2. Thanks!

  3. I think the first paragraph is at most a half-truth; books often come into focus after the passage of time has separated the author-persona from the continuing life of the person who wrote it. I often wonder what the hell I was thinking (about specific points, not the book as a whole) when I wrote The Complete Lojban Language (1998); I haven’t read my (unpublishable) 1975 novel in years. Le Guin, on the other hand, has said that she often doesn’t realize the theme of her books for some years after writing them.

  4. As I writer, I’m always surprised when people think of writing as a rather narcissistic occupation. The opposite is true: it’s the most humiliating of all jobs. To do it right you have to be constantly willing to look at what you thought was wonderful yesterday, and realize today that it’s a piece of junk, and rewrite it. And do the same thing the day after that.

    On second thought, I’m not saying that there aren’t plenty of other jobs that offer their own unique humiliations. (See, even here, I’m rewriting.)

Speak Your Mind