New York Times Interview With Author Patrick Modiano Who Says Good Books Make Good People

From a New York Times By the Book interview with author Patrick Modiano”:

What books are on your night stand?

There are piles of books that I read often, the classics. But please forgive me — I am in the midst of writing a book and I can only give you brief responses.

Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?

No. A great book must have an unforgettable style, an unforgettable music.

What books would you say have provided your best reading experience?

There are many. Among them: Stendhal, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Melville — all the great writers of the 19th century. To these, I would add those of the 18th: the Abbé Prévost, Restif de la Bretonne, the memoirs of Duc de Saint-Simon, etc.

Which 20th-century writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — do you admire most?

Since I was 16, I’ve admired Ernest Hemingway, Carson McCullers, Cesare Pavese, Malcolm Lowry and a poet, W.B. Yeats. Also, “The Magic Mountain,” by Thomas Mann.

Who is your favorite author too few people have heard of?

There was a young writer I met and admired: Tristan Egolf. In my opinion, he was one of the greatest of his generation. I entered his room one evening, during the winter of 1995. On the table, a pile of papers. There were countless corrections, with words too close together. I thought of the microscopic writing of another writer I loved, Robert Walser. There were over 400 pages — it was his first novel. My wife read the manuscript before I did, and confirmed my intuition. I felt this 23-year-old young man might belong to the likes of Walser, the ones who make prose dance like little ballerinas, who, in Walser’s words, “dance until they are totally exhausted and collapse.” I am certain that Tristan Egolf will find his rightful place among the greats of American literature, as a meteor of his generation.

You were the first so-called “autofictionalist” to win the Nobel Prize, a feat your countrywoman Annie Ernaux has just repeated. What other writers of autofiction do you particularly recommend?

I never understood what is meant by “autofiction.” It seems to me that all writers, be they novelists or poets, find inspiration from all they have lived and observed before transposing and stylizing this material.

What writers are especially good on memory and its role in our lives?

Most novelists are writers of memory, as opposed to journalists, who are prisoners of the immediate present. Even if a novelist writes a book inspired by the immediate present, this present is projected into another dimension, the dimension of literature, no longer the one of journalism. To give an example, Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” written about the Spanish War at the very time the war was happening.

And reality, once reconsidered and dreamed in the author’s memory, gains an additional power of attraction, an echo, a particular resonance which it didn’t have at first. And this emphasizes the spell that the novelist casts over his reader.

What books would you recommend to somebody who wants to learn more about France?

About France, I don’t know. But about Paris, I would recommend an American book: “A Moveable Feast,” by Ernest Hemingway.

And what contemporary French writers deserve a wider audience elsewhere?

Ramuz, a French-speaking Swiss writer, who is probably the greatest 20th-century writer of French prose and style. André Dhôtel, the author of over 30 novels in the genre of what could be called magical realism. Gaston Bachelard is also a master of poetic prose.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

The style. The music. What moves me most in a book is to hear the same voice speaking to me from the beginning to the end of it.

Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?

The ones that reach me emotionally.

How do you organize your book collection?

Unfortunately, it would take many people to organize my library. One would have to produce a card-filing system where the name of the authors and titles of their books would appear in alphabetical order. Mainly, it would indicate the exact location of each book, because I often spend hours, even days, weeks and months, looking for a book, and sometimes I never find it. My books are in two rows on the bookshelves, the first row hiding the second. Other books are piled up in closets and crates, and even more in storage units.

At one point, I had to get rid of about 5,000 books, because there was no more room to keep them. I should have made a list of these 5,000 books, because I no longer remember their titles. Often, I look for one without realizing I don’t have it anymore.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

Loads of phone books of all types: from Paris from 1835 through the 1970s, from London and Berlin, commercial phone books from the ’30s, from cities in Europe, from America, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Pacific Islands, social registers, directories of movie theaters, playhouses, dance and music halls, etc., in which appear the addresses of hundreds of thousands of vanished people.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

For many years, my wife has given me a copy of the book “Manon Lescaut,” by Abbé Prévost, for my birthday, each time in a different edition.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Many people in my generation read a lot as children (no TV, no internet). I loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” Mark Twain, Hans Christian Andersen, Anthony Hope’s “The Prisoner of Zenda,” Baroness Orczy’s “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” Marcel Aymé’s “Les Contes du Chat Perché” and Alexandre Dumas’s “The Three Musketeers.”

Do books serve a moral function, in your view? How so?

A book that profoundly moves or thrills you makes you a more sensitive person, and therefore a better one. That is its moral function.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

I don’t know if one could organize a literary “party” inviting 20 writers as one would organize a meeting of club members. I’m afraid these writers, unless they are already friends, wouldn’t have much to say to one another. James Joyce and Marcel Proust met once when they were invited to a party in Paris. This was reportedly their only exchange:

“It’s raining.”

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