October 10, 2008
French Writer Wins Nobel Prize
By ALAN COWELL
PARIS — The Swedish Academy on Thursday awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize for literature to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, a cosmopolitan and prolific French novelist, children’s author and essayist regarded by many French readers and critics as one of the country’s greatest living writers.
Mr. Le Clézio has written more than 40 books, 12 of which have been translated into English, an exotic canon of novels, essays and children’s books depicted by the academy as distilled from experience in Mexico, Central America and North Africa and suffused with a quest for lost culture and new spiritual realities.
In its citation, the prize committee in Stockholm called him an “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.” The prize, won last year by the British author Doris Lessing, was worth $1.43 million.
“I am very moved, very touched,” Mr. Le Clézio told Swedish public radio. “It’s a great honor for me.”
While his work is inflected with international experience, Mr. Le Clézio, 68, is the 14th French writer to win the prize since it was created in 1901, and the 12th European author to win since 1994, indicative of a trend that has become a matter of heated debate.
The Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, recently said that Europe was “the center of the literary world,” and suggested that American writers were too insular and too much under the sway of American popular culture to win. The last American writer to receive the prize was Toni Morrison in 1993.
After a series of sharp comments by American critics, Mr. Engdahl toned down his remarks, saying the prize “is not a contest between nations but an award to individual authors.” At a news conference in Stockholm on Thursday, Mr. Engdahl said Mr. Le Clézio’s “works have a cosmopolitan character. Frenchman, yes, but more so a traveler, a citizen of the world, a nomad.”
However, national pride was immediately in evidence in France. President Nicolas Sarkozy called Mr. Le Clézio’s award “an honor for France, the French language and the French-speaking world.”
Mr. Le Clézio was born on April 13, 1940, in Nice. Both parents had strong family connections with the former French and subsequently British colony of Mauritius, the Swedish Academy said.
When he was 8, the family moved to Nigeria, where Mr. Le Clézio’s father had been stationed as a doctor during World War II. “During the monthlong voyage to Nigeria,” the academy said, “he began his literary career with two books” which “even contained a list of ‘forthcoming books.’ ”
His first novel — “Le procès-verbal” (“The Interrogation”) — was published in 1963, drawing much attention. An English-language version was published a year later.
As the Swedish Academy put it on Thursday, “As a young writer in the aftermath of existentialism and the nouveau roman, he was a conjurer who tried to lift words above the degenerate state of everyday speech and to restore to them the power to invoke an essential reality.”
In those early years, “Le Clézio stood out as an ecologically engaged author,” the academy said, with a series of books published in the 1960s and early 1970s, several of which — including “Fever” (1966), “The Flood” (1967) and “Terra Amata” (1969) — were published in English.
The breakthrough novel establishing him as among France’s leading modern writers is generally held to be “Désert” in 1980, which won a prize from the French Academy.
“This work contains magnificent images of a lost culture in the North African desert, contrasted with a depiction of Europe seen through the eyes of unwanted immigrants,” the academy said. “The main character, the Algerian guest worker Lalla, is a utopian antithesis to the ugliness and brutality of European society.”
Mr. Le Clézio also published collections of essays influenced by long stays in Mexico and Central America, the Swedish Academy said. His books for children and youth include Lullaby, published in French in 1980, and Balaabilou, published in French in 1985.
In 1975 he married, and since the 1990s, he and his wife, Jemia, a Moroccan, have divided their time between Albuquerque, N.M., Mauritius and Nice, the academy said.
“The emphasis of Le Clézio’s work has increasingly moved in the direction of an exploration of the world of childhood and of his own family history,” the academy said, listing the most important themes of his work as “memory, exile, the reorientations of youth, cultural conflict.”
In 2004, he published “L’Africain” — “The African” — described on Thursday as the story of his father: “a reconstruction, a vindication, and the recollection of a boy who lived in the shadow of a stranger he was obliged to love.”
Among Mr. Le Clézio’s most recent works are “Ballaciner,” published in 2007 and described by the prize committee as “a deeply personal essay about the history of the art of film and the importance of film in the author’s life, from the hand-turned projectors of his childhood, the cult of cinéaste trends in his teens, to his adult forays into the art of film as developed in unfamiliar parts of the world.”
Antoine Compagnon, a French professor teaching at Columbia University, described Mr. Clézio in a telephone interview as “the most written about living French novelist today, a huge number of books and theses.”
“There is a concern for civilizations, a concern for ecology,” Professor Compagnon said. “His books really appealed to my students because of the exoticism, the very seductive dreaminess. What I was really seduced by in his early work is this melancholic experience, of anguish, of being solitary in the city.”
Basil Katz contributed reporting.