So Patrick Modiano got the Nobel Prize in literature, the 15th French to be so honored (Sartre declined it). Was it about France? Living in an imaginary world, full of imaginary friends?
I do not know Modiano’s work (but I have seen him try to talk on TV, many times in the past). Actually I do not know literature. I used to read a lot, in my zeroes, including Dickens, Moby Dick, Hugo.
Rosny Aine’’s War of Fire (Guerre du Feu) and Victor Hugo made a lasting impression. Some other famous authors I found completely indigestible. Then came my teenage years: I grew up. My focus of inquiry turned to the real world. I found that wild baboons had more to say than self-admiring tycoons of letters parading in Paris’ smoky saloons.
What’s wrong with literature?
I watch French literature shows on TV, where famous authors come, and are interviewed. Some are well connected cuties, like Nathalie Nothcombe, who just made an entire book about drinking drugs. She is a scion of an originally aristocratic English family whose father, somehow, ended as Belgian ambassador to Japan (thus the grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria ended as Kaiser of Germany while his cousin was Czar of Russia). She sold millions of books, and she is as interesting as a door knob.
So I watch those literature shows the French are obsessed by, and the scenario is always the same. Some guy (it’s most often a guy, barring the occasional cutie) comes and starts to speak about some fictitious person whom he invented with letters, as if that person had really existed.
Others swarm around, mouth gaping about the pathetic inventions evoked by the great man, as if they were real phenomena.
But all I see is some guy telling me about some people in his imagination, in his imaginary circumstances doing his imaginary things. I see the guy, I see him, I see his limitations, I see that he says what he says because of who he is. Generally somebody whose reality is far more mediocre, far more mundane thn the real reality out there.
Mundane is a problem. Mundane comes from the Old French mondain “of this world, worldly, earthly, secular.” Mondain has come to mean, in modern French “from the upper reaches of glittering high society”.
Methinks that the confusion between this very limited imaginary make-believe and the real world, contributes a lot to the gathering failure known as France, or, for that matter the gathering failure of the West.
What do I propose instead?
I propose that those who sell (lots of) books are not necessarily the top intellectuals. Pure imagination looking at its own navel goes only that far (as Buddhism has amply demonstrated).
I propose that literature is not philosophy. Reading is different from scathingly critical thinking (which top philosophy, or physics, has always to be. I am not talking about perfecting blue LEDs here).
In the particular case of Modiano, I should not be that critical.
Patrick Modiano’s Nobel, is, to some extent an acknowledgment that literature stands to gain much by interrogating the cold, real facts of the Dark Side of man. Modiano’s work is much about what happened during the more than four years during which France was occupied by the Nazis. He actually hunted down some facts, and the tragic fate, say, of a girl assassinated in Auschwitch (Dora Bruder).
The period, Nazism, was a great revelator of human nature, in all sorts of astounding ways, and has not been tapped enough that way. So, be it only for that, it’s excellent that Modiano got recognized (it’s not his first prize).
Modiano evokes a Nazi collaborator, who is also a Jew. No doubt it’s fun to ponder the facts. But reality is much more striking. A Jew like Hannah Arendt ended in her adviser’s bed, the extremely prominent and nefarious Nazi Martin Heidegger (himself a devout Catholic married to someone else).
After the war, Hannah and Martin made friends again. Hannah, by then famous, and an authentic resistance fighter, condemned whole sale the Jewish Councils for having collaborated with Hitler. She was right. But she was hated for it. She also did not get the Nobel, although this was a very important perspective upon human nature.
I have myself spent a lot of time mulling over the Nazi period, as it is an excellent teacher (so is the reaction of the Politically Correct about those who meditate on Nazism).
I do feel like imagining what went through Edwin Rommel’s mind, went he went from Nazi, mass murdering, war criminal monster in 1940, to somebody who, by 1944 stood in opposition to much of what he had fanatically propped up earlier.
However, I don’t feel as making up imaginative explanations I do not have a good evidence for.
Although I have read several dozens of thousands of pages on the subject, all of them claiming to depict reality, I have never opened a book of Modiano.
I have the same problem with Greco-Roman history. I enjoy the historians, and the original documents. But I cannot stand the fictionalized histories purporting to depict what happened. (I tried to read many of those.) The problem? They come short. They make palatable the unpalatable, thus losing the main point. “Presentism” degenerates not just history, but what history can teach about reality.
I have seen several movies purporting to depict Hitler. But I have the real books and documents where one can see Hitler thinking, for real, and that is much more instructive. Hitler thought of himself as an artistic genius (quite a bit like Nero), but others also thought he was a genius, and a kind one (!). Reading him in context explains why his monstrosity went undetected by the deliberately naive.
No novelist could depict Hitler for real, be it only because readers and critics would detest it, call it names, and the novelist will get no readers to speak of. Thus would not become a novelist, and even less, a Nobelist.
Novelism, Nobelism, literature, are all about marketing, in the end. It’s about the next best new (novel) thing which sells so well that a few old guys in Stockholm notice it.
Evidence, the real world, teach. Teach wisdom. Adulating marketing teaches the folly of the herd.
“Littera” in Latin originally just mean “letter”, and, from that, a writing. Confusing whatever is written with reality is a disease. However, writing whatever as a possible imaginative path to reality, is a wisdom. A wisdom which, confronted to reality, always comes short. The trap of literature is to make feeble, marketable imagination, a fashion show, in other words, into all the reality that matters.
The Nobel Prize in literature will never replace the non-existent Nobel Prize in wisdom. But then, of course, only the wise can judge the wise. To the ant, the baboon is rather dumb to crush it under foot. There is nothing more unfair than mental capability, that’s why some try to compensate it, by offering bananas.