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Carolyn Todd
October 09, 2014 AT 02:43 PM EDT

The Swedish Academy announced this morning that French historical novelist Patrick Modiano has won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, calling him “a Marcel Proust of our time.” Modiano, 69, is an unexpected pick—beating out the favorites, Japanese author Haruki Murakami and Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, to win the award worth eight million kronor (about $1.1 million USD).

Though Modiano has written over 40 books and received critical acclaim in France, he is not a household name in the U.S.—only six of his works been translated into English. According to BBC News, the author has drawn from his own life—he is of Jewish-Italian descent and grew up in a Paris suburb in the aftermath of World War II—to pen a number of novels about the Nazi occupation of France. The Academy says it selected Modiano “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

Reuters reported that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said of his win, “This is well-deserved for a writer who is moreover discreet, as is much of his excellent work,” referring to Modiano’s tendency to keep a low public profile.

Past recipients of the prestigious honor include Ernest Hemingway and Rudyard Kipling. Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio was the last writer from France to win the prize in 2008. Modiano’s latest novel is this year’s Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier. 

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