France's Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday for his enigmatic novels rooted in the trauma of the Nazi occupation and his own loveless childhood.
One of France's most celebrated writers, the 69-year-old father of two, known for his shy, gentle manner, greeted news of his award as "a bit unreal" and said it felt as if it was happening to someone else.
The Swedish Academy said it wanted to celebrate Modiano's "art of memory" in capturing the lives of ordinary French people living under the Nazis during World War II.
"He's a kind of Marcel Proust for our time," said Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the academy, praising a body of works that "speak to each other, that echo off each other, that are about memory, identity and seeking.
"They are small books... always variations on the same theme: about memory, about loss, about identity, about seeking."
Speaking in Paris, hours after the prize was announced, the writer told reporters he was having difficulty taking in the news.
"It seems a bit unreal to me to be compared to other people I admired," he said, referring to other French authors such as Albert Camus who won the Nobel in 1957.
- Literary archaeologist -
The writer, who dedicated his win to his Swedish grandson, added: "It's like experiencing a sort of disconnection, as if there's another person called me."
French President Francois Hollande paid tribute to his "considerable body of work which explores the subtleties of memory and the complexity of identity".
Prime Minister Manuel Valls described Modiano as a "writer of succinct, incisive literature... who is without doubt one of the greatest writers of recent years".
Antoine Gallimard, the head of Modiano's French publisher Gallimard, told AFP the author reacted to the news with his "customary modesty".
The award makes him the 15th French author to win the Nobel, which carries a prize sum of eight million Swedish kronor ($1.1 million, 878,000 euros). US authors have won on 12 occasions.
Modiano has called the occupation of France during World War II "the soil I grew up in".
His father Alberto Modiano was an Italian Jew with ties to the Gestapo -- and to organised crime gangs -- who was spared from wearing the yellow star. His mother was a Flemish actress named Louisa Colpeyn. The pair met in Paris in 1942.
Their son Patrick was born three years later, at the end of the war, in the Paris suburb of Boulogne, into a family whose complex background set the scene for a lifelong obsession with that dark period in history.
- 'A bit unreal' -
Published when he was just 22, in 1967, his first novel "La place de l'etoile" (The Star's Place), was a direct reference to that mark of shame inflicted on the Jews.
It was the first of many recreations of wartime Paris stuffed with meticulous detail -- street names, cafes, metro stations and real-life crime cases of the day -- earning him the moniker of literary archaeologist.
His novels are also full of enigma, and winks to the reader: a critic once counted five characters from five different novels who all shared the same telephone number.
Modiano's work is also haunted by his cold upbringing -- once leading him to joke that his mother's heart was so cold her lap-sized pet chow-chow leapt from a window to its death.
Englund said that in line with the Proust tradition, Modiano was "looking for times past, but he's doing it in his very, very, own way".
"This is not someone taking a bite of the madeleine cake and everything comes back to him," he told AFP, referring to the famous anecdote in Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" when the protagonist bit into a tea-soaked cake which triggered a rush of childhood memories. "Quite the opposite, this is someone really struggling to reach contact with the past."
The eldest of two boys, Patrick Modiano spent long, unhappy periods in boarding school. His beloved brother Rudy died in 1957, when the author was still a boy, and he dedicated his early works to his memory.
At the age of 17, Modiano broke all ties with his father, who died 15 years later and who he took to task in several of his books.
Still a teenager, Modiano left school and began to write, by hand as he would continue to do throughout his life.
"I was not yet 20, but my memories date to before I was born," he has said.
- 'Cold heart' -
While his childhood has been a rich source of material, the author says he is not given to wallowing or soul searching.
"I have nothing to confess, nothing to clear up and I have no need for self-examination," he once said.
"I write these pages as you would write a resume, or an accident report, like a documentary and probably to be done with a life that was not mine."
In 1972, Modiano was awarded the French Academy's Grand Prize for "Ring Roads", and the prestigious Goncourt Prize followed in 1978 for "Missing Person".
In 1996, he won the National Literature Grand Prize for his entire work. His latest book, "Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier" (So you don't get lost in the neighbourhood) appeared this month.
Apart from a long series of books, in the early 1970s, Modiano co-wrote the screenplay for Lacombe Lucien, a movie directed by Louis Malle focusing on French collaboration with the Nazis.
Although translated into more than 30 languages, he is said to have trouble expressing himself in public and once refused a nomination to the elite Academie Francaise.
Modiano will be presented with his award at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.
Last year's Nobel Literature Prize went to the Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro.