I arrived where I wanted to be: Gamla Stan, a fairytale condensed into a tiny island marking the center of Stockholm. Cobbled streets and alluring alleyways dating back to the thirteenth century host a multitude of museums and trinket shops that, when I arrived, had not yet opened to another day of tending the last waves of summertime tourists. I was almost a week into my holiday, and I was tired, brought low by the clouds that threatened to break down at a moment’s notice. I had resolved to walk along the musky October streets of Stockholm’s Old Town without any plan in mind. The looping alleys guided me past the castle, churches, and the cathedral; Gamla Stan introduced itself to me as I meandered. Serendipity took the reins, and my meandering lead me straight to the plaza of the Nobel Museum.
I was surprised to see a crowd of people and a line of news vans loitering just outside the entrance of the museum. Whatever event was drawing the crowd, I was determined to find out. I wiggled my way through the gathering of people, anticipating the extraordinary, only to find out they were a group of tourists waiting for the museum gates to open. There were only a couple of minutes left, so I figured I would join the masses. I mean, as a good tourist, I would have to go to the Nobel Museum at some point during my time in Stockholm, so I figured I might as well seize the moment.
At this point of my holiday, I had gotten into the naughty habit of blending into student tour groups, mainly because I was too cheap to purchase a tour for myself. And my time at the Nobel Museum was no exception – as soon as I paid my entrance fee, I squirreled my way into a school tour of the museum. The main exhibition explored the ways in which the Nobel Prize developed over time and what this development showed about the future of the prize and its recipients. The tour guide at the Nobel Museum was talking about the process of the awards and how the winners are nominated and ultimately selected. Suddenly, he paused, smiled, and casually mentioned that at one o’clock that day, the Swedish Academy, housed just upstairs from the museum, would be announcing the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. I was caught by surprise, and the weight of the tour guide’s statement didn’t pull on my mind until I reasoned through the unbelievable reality of the situation and noticed that in under an hour, I could be present at the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
I wasn’t sure what the optimum viewing quarters would be. I couldn’t figure out where precisely the announcement would be given as there were various concentrations of people across the area of the museum, all eager for the news. Ultimately I settled on the Nobel Café, where I could watch the announcement without imposing myself where I should not be. I ordered some lunch, happy to watch the announcement on a screen at the Café. Luck works magic sometimes, and instead of the event unfolding on a video screen, the actual announcement took place just a few metres from where I was sitting.
The 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Patrick Modiano, a French writer from Paris “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”. Modiano is relatively well known in France, yet his work had not circulated outside his home country before the announcement of the prize. I have yet to read his novels, and actually don’t know anyone who has recognized Modiano’s name outside the Nobel Prize context. Modiano’s work, however, is appealing to me because his books are short and accessible yet filled with thought-provoking plot lines that focus on reflections and memory. The announcer claimed that one could easily read one of Modiano’s novels in the morning, eat lunch and then read another in the evening. He particularly recommended Modiano’s Missing Person (Rue des Boutiques Obscures), a novel about an amnesiac detective searching for his own identity.
The Swedish Academy’s choice of Modiano was astonishing to most, as this is an author whose work hasn’t travelled far past its home borders. Modiano’s work – usually thought of as a body of work, rather than characterized by any piece in particular – has hardly been translated into English and in reality has only been partially translated to Spanish, German and Swedish. In France, his work is usually in best-seller lists, and there even has been talk of a “phenomene Modiano.” I appreciate the Nobel Academy’s ability to look beyond popular works to find quality.
Though on drastically different scales, the announcement was a surprise for me as much as it was a surprise for Modiano and the wider public. Fittingly, perhaps we could say that Modiano’s win was guided by serendipity.
[Photo Credit: Dominique Lear]