(Published in The Malay Mail 30 October)
When Patrick Modiano learned this month he had won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature he asked his editor why the Swedish Academy had selected him, saying he found their choice “strange”.
I find his reaction “strange”. While the French writer, revered for his moody novels set in Paris during the Nazi occupation, is known for his modesty, questioning his worthiness is another thing altogether. Most writers would have shelved self-doubt on the spot, and gracefully accepted this prestigious award honouring a lifetime of writing.
Was it nerves? Or, was his reaction merely an extension of the Gallic shrug the French are so partial to, which loosely translates to: “What you’re talking about? I don’t agree.”
Perhaps there are darker forces at play. Is Modiano’s outburst more symptomatic of a larger problem: a malaise that has swept its black, mouldy fingers across the nation over the past few years, decades even, making the French prone to feelings of unfulfillment and unhappiness?
It sounds dramatic. But studies do point to the French suffering from some of the lowest levels of happiness and optimism in Europe. Professor Claudia Senik of The Paris School of Economics called it the “French Paradox” given the French enjoy one of the highest standards of living — a 35-hour working week, an enviable healthcare system, good education, technologically advanced and a culture so rich that it attracts 80 million tourists every year — yet its citizens are some of the most miserable in Europe (the French income-happiness index was reportedly the lowest after Portugal). This phenomenon holds for as far back as the early 1970s, when researchers first started to compile data.
France may be struggling economically and politically, but Senik, looking to explain the phenomenon, interestingly points to: “Mental attitudes that are acquired in school or other socialisation instances, especially during youth.” Is the implication that the French are somehow programmed to be miserable from an early age? I haven’t lived here long enough yet to know whether this is true, but I would say the French education system is certainly rigorous and expectations very high, often leaving pupils overly-burdened by homework and stressed.
The study also notes a “high prevalence of depressiveness” among the French which translates into an “exceptionally high consumption of psychoactive drugs (especially anti-depression) by European standards”. Indeed, suicide in France is more common than anywhere outside of the former Eastern bloc Europe except for Belgium and Finland, according to official statistics released last year.
Which leads me to Éric Zemmour — another French writer albeit one with a certain notoriety — and his highly controversial book “Le Suicide français” published earlier this month. The French are currently tripping over themselves to get hold of a copy of its 534 weighty pages in which Zemmour seeks to explain the decline of France over the past 40 years. Each chapter is devoted to a particular event within each year subsequent to 1970 which he claims led to the fractures, contradictions and black holes in French society we see today.
Le Suicide français is currently France’s best-selling book with close to 300,000 copies sold in the first two weeks of it being published on 2 October. The desire to wallow in more misery, or to understand what is making them so miserable, is irresistible, it seems.
Let’s get to back to Modiano because reading excerpts from his interviews do paint a picture of a writer tortured by his craft at the very least. I imagined him staring at the ceiling from the comfort of a velvety chaise longue, sharing his innermost thoughts with his therapist when he says: “I have always felt like I’ve been writing the same book for the past 45 years…”. “The feeling of dissatisfaction with every book remains just as alive. I had a longtime-recurring dream…that I had nothing left to write, that I was liberated. I am not, alas. I am still trying to clear the same terrain, with the feeling that I’ll never get done.”
It’s enough to put any prospective writer off the profession. N’est-ce pas?
At least the 69-year-old is going to accept the Nobel. He could have equally pulled a “Jean-Paul Sartre”, a Nobel candidate in 1964 who told the academy in no uncertain terms he’d reject the prize if awarded to him. Now, that is strange.