If you're a literature lover, you've probably seen the recent news that French novelist Patrick Modiano was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. Many English-speakers outside of France have no idea who he is, given that only a handful of his books have been translated into English (although a number of his books have been translated into Spanish, German and other languages). Even Modiano, a retiring man who generally shuns interviews, was genuinely surprised by the Nobel news.
Although I count myself as a fervent Francophile and regularly read children's books in French, I have to admit that Modiano's name didn't ring any major bells -- at first. But then I read that Modiano also has written books for children. Maybe that's why I kept having a feeling that I had read something by him.
So I checked our library's catalog and there it was! Catherine Certitude, a slim children's novel written by Patrick Modiano, shelved in our small but growing collection of French books for children. In fact, in looking at the catalogs of the big library systems that surround us, my little library is the only one with a copy of the book, thanks to a chance purchase I made at Politics & Prose several years ago for our library's French children's book collection.
Published in France in 1988, Catherine Certitude is a little gem of a novel about the close bond between a father and daughter who live in an apartment in Paris, in the 10th arrondisement. Catherine's mother, an American dancer, has gone back to New York for reasons that are mysterious to Catherine, but Catherine's father tells her they will rejoin her mother once he gets his business affairs in order. Meanwhile, father and daughter have some memorable adventures, as recounted in Modiano's spare but lyrical prose. If you read French, Slate.fr has a brief article about the poetry of Modiano's storytelling in Catherine Certitude.
While I loved the story of Catherine Certitude, as well as Modiano's writing style, I have to admit that what made the book really stand out for me were the illustrations. They're by the great Jean-Jacques Sempé, who has become well-known -- and well-loved -- to many Americans because of the many remarkable covers he's created for The New Yorker. (Young readers in my library also know Sempé for the drawings he did for the Nicholas books, which finally were translated into English a few years ago.)
Two years ago, I was fortunate to be in France when there was a huge -- and free -- Sempé exhibit at the Hotel de Ville, Paris' city hall. There were hundreds of Sempé drawings and cartoons, including the cover and some of the drawings for Catherine Certitude. Seeing the original artwork brought the story of Catherine Certitude rushing back, and I realized how much emotion Modiano (and Sempé) had packed into that 96-page illustrated novel.
For those who don't read French, Catherine Certitude was published in English in 2001 and is available from David Godine publishers. I just bought a copy of the English translation, which is, interestingly, published in a picture book format, at Politics & Prose for our library. Meanwhile, you can enjoy an extract in English from the book. Whether you read it in English or French, this is one book from a Nobel Prize winner that you shouldn't miss.
PS. My French friend Nadia tells me that Modiano wrote two other children's books, Une fiancée pour Choura and Une aventure de Choura; both were published by Gallimard Jeunesse. Merci, Nadia, for the information!