Thursday, October 9, 2008

JMG Le Clézio wins Nobel Prize in Literature

The Swedish Academy announced that French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio has won the Nobel prize for literature.

Vive la France!

I must admit that I scratched my head and said ‘Huh?’. I expected Amoz Oz, Philip Roth or maybe Vargas Llosa to win the prize. In the UK most of his works are out of print and in Italy he is published by small editors. “Only 12 of his 40 novels have been translated into English”, The New York Times writes. Can you see something into that? I guess so, if you have read Mr. Engdahl's opinions on American literature. Nonetheless, Le Clézio has been living in New Mexico, USA, in near seclusion, for nearly twenty years. I can see a contradiction there: why despise American literature for its isolation and then award someone who’s been living there for such a long time? The mystery will remain buried in Sweden, I guess…

Le Clézio is European (even if he boasts a strong connection with Mauritius) and comes from a nation that has a very old tradition of literature. This confirms that the Academy considers European literature somehow superior to other literatures. All the judges of the Nobel Prize are Swedish and they held their chair for life: they are intellectuals, but known only in their country. If all the judges were Chinese, we would have more Asian Nobel Prizes, don’t you think? [I'm not saying that Le Clézio doesn't deserve the prize, because I haven't read any of his novels, I'm only reflecting on the decision of the jury.]

Anyway, the motivation given for this award is: “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilisation".

J.M.G. Le Clézio was born in Nice in 1940. His family originates from Brittany (north-western France) but has strong links with Mauritius, where his ancestors had migrated in the 18th century. His family had experienced English colonization in Mauritius, and this is why he grew up bilingual (and even had considered becoming a writer in English before deciding it was too "colonial" a language). When he was 8, he moved to Nigeria with his father who was a doctor in the British army. He studied in England and France and traveled extensively throughout his life: Thailand, Mexico, Panama, USA and South Korea.
He published his first novel Le Proces-Verbal (The Interrogation) in 1963, when he was only 23. Le Clézio became popular in France in the 1970s and 80s with novels set across the world. His big breakthrough came in 1980 with Désert, an award-winning novel of French colonialism seen through the eyes of a Tuareg woman in the Sahara. The book contrasts the ugliness and ignorance of Europe, as experienced by immigrants, with the simple nobility of a lost Tuareg civilisation in the Sahara, destroyed by French colonialism. Major books include Vers les Icebergs, the first ever translation into an occidental language of the Indian mythology book The Prophecies of the Chilam Balam; Onitsha, in which a small child moves to Africa in search of his father, a doctor; Étoile Errante, about Jewish emigration to the Promised Land; Pawana, Diego et Frida, a fictional tale of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and La Quarantine, a narration of the past adventures of his maternal grandfather.
Le Clézio is regarded by many people as the greatest living French writer. He has established a worldwide reputation as a student of almost every culture on the planet and a passionate advocate for the superior wisdom of "non-rational", non-Western ways of understanding human existence.
“There are few modern writers more cosmopolitan than Le Clézio. He was born in France. His father was a Mauritian-born British doctor. He spent part of his childhood with his father in Africa and several years in the 1970s living with an Indian tribe in Panama. He now lives and teaches for most of the year in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He once said: "The French language is my only country, the only place that I call home”. (The Independent)

So, you could say that the Nobel Prize wasn’t awarded to a Frenchman but to a citizen of the world!

Every year there is a debate on the subject of the Nobel Prizes: The Guardian called the controversy “the storm in an imperialist teacup” and Italian critic Pietro Citati says that Le Clézio is just "an average writer".

A couple of blogger friends suggested that I should read his autobiographical novel L'Africain as a possible Nobel-Prize-related read. I hope I can find a French bookshop somewhere in London, because the bloody English don't translate enough, also because they dislike the Frenchies! =D

Is the Nobel commiteed biased against America? See controversies for the other fields and read this article.

What do you think about the Nobel Prize in Peace awarded to former Finnish former president Martti Ahtisaari? Personally, I think that the Academy chickened out over the nominations of Hu Jia and Ingrid Betancourt, but I'm not an expert on the subject.


  1. This is a very good info!I adore his literaure;suggestion if not already read:'L'africain'.
    A presto!

  2. anch'io ho letto "L'Africain"... ed anch'io lo consiglio!
    ma quanti gusti in comune abbiamo eh, cara uhuru na usalama!!

  3. Bene, credo che dovrò girare mezza Londra per trovare un libro di Le Clézio, ma ci proverò...