Winner of 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

Below is the bibliography of the 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature announced at 7:00 pm (+7GMT Vietnam Time).

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was born on April 13, 1940, in Nice, but both parents had strong family connections with the former French colony, Mauritius (conquered by the British in 1810). At the age of eight, Le Clézio and his family moved to Nigeria, where the father had been stationed as a doctor during the Second World War. During the month-long voyage to Nigeria, he began his literary career with two books, Un long voyage and Oradi noir, which even contained a list of “forthcoming books.” He grew up with two languages, French and English. In 1950 the family returned to Nice. After completing his secondary education, he studied English at Bristol University in 1958-59 and completed his undergraduate degree in Nice (Institut d’Études Littéraires) in 1963. He took a master’s degree at the University of Aix-en-Provence in 1964 and wrote a doctoral thesis on Mexico’s early history at the University of Perpignan in 1983. He has taught at universities in Bangkok, Mexico City, Boston, Austin and Albuquerque among other places.

Le Clézio received much attention with his first novel, Le procès-verbal (1963; The Interrogation, 1964). 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. His debut novel was the first in a series of descriptions of crisis, which includes the short story collection La fièvre (1965; Fever, 1966) and Le déluge (1966; The Flood, 1967), in which he points out the trouble and fear reigning in the major Western cities.

Even early on Le Clézio stood out as an ecologically engaged author, an orientation that is accentuated with the novels Terra amata (1967; Terra Amata, 1969), Le livre des fuites (1969; The Book of Flights, 1971), La guerre (1970; War, 1973) and Les géants (1973; The Giants, 1975). His definitive breakthrough as a novelist came with Désert (1980), for which he received 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 main character, the Algerian guest worker Lalla, is a utopian antithesis to the ugliness and brutality of European society.

During the same period, Le Clézio published the meditative essay collections L’extase matérielle (1967), Mydriase (1973) and Haï (1971), the last of which shows influences from Indian culture. Long stays in Mexico and Central America in the period 1970 to 1974 were of decisive significance for his work, and he left the big cites in search of a new spiritual reality in the contact with the Indians. He met the Moroccan Jemia, who became his wife in 1975, the same year Voyage de l’autre côté was published, a book in which he gives an account of what he learned in Central America. Le Clézio began the translation of the major works of the Indian tradition, such as Les prophéties du Chilam Balam. Le rêve mexicain ou la pensée interrompue (1998) testifies to his fascination with Mexico’s magnificent past. Since the 90s Le Clézio and his wife share their time between Albuquerque in New Mexico, the island of Mauritius and Nice.

Le cercheur d’or (1985; The Prospector, 1993) treats material from the islands of the Indian Ocean in the spirit of the adventure story. In later years the author’s attraction to the dream of earthly paradise is apparent in books such as Ourania (2005) and Raga: approche du continent invisible (2006). The latter is devoted to documenting a way of life on the islands of the Indian Ocean that is disappearing with the advance of globalization. The former is set in a remote valley in Mexico, where the main character, the author’s alter ego, finds a colony of seekers who have regained the harmony of the golden age and laid aside civilization’s ruined customs, including its languages.

The emphasis in Le Clézio’s work has increasingly moved in the direction of an exploration of the world of childhood and of his own family history. This development began with Onitsha (1991; Onitsha, 1997), continued more explicitly with La quarantaine (1995) and has culminated in Révolutions (2003) and L’Africain (2004). Révolutions sums up the most important themes of his work: memory, exile, the reorientations of youth, cultural conflict. Episodes from various times and places are juxtaposed: the main character’s student years during the 1950s and 60s in Nice, London and Mexico; the experiences of an ancestor from Brittany as a soldier in the army of the revolution in 1792-94 and his emigration to Mauritius to escape the repression of revolutionary society; and the story of a female slave from the beginning of the 1800s. Embedded among the childhood memories is the story of the main character’s visit to his grandfather’s sister, the last mediator of family tradition from the lost estate on Mauritius, who passes on the memories that he as author will carry into the future.

L’Africain, the story of the author’s father, is at once a reconstruction, a vindication, and the recollection of a boy who lived in the shadow of a stranger he was obliged to love. He remembers through the landscape: Africa tells him who he was when, at the age of eight, he experienced the family’s reunion after the separation during the war years.

Among Le Clézio’s most recent works are Ballaciner (2007), 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. A new work, Ritournelle de la faim, has just been published.

Le Clézio has also written several books for children and youth, for example Lullaby (1980), Celui qui n’avait jamais vu la mer suivi de La montagne du dieu vivant (1982) and Balaabilou (1985).

Literary Prizes: Prix Théophraste Renaudot (1963), Prix Larbaud (1972), Grand Prix Paul Morand de l’Académie française (1980), Grand Prix Jean Giono (1997), Prix Prince de Monaco (1998), Stig Dagermanpriset (2008)

Text and picture courtesy of Nobel Foundation
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2008 Nobel Prize in Literature

Sometime this evening, +7 GMT, the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced, until then the community of literati around the world is waiting who will be considered in the ranks of the greatest writers of the modern time. While awaiting, below is a post by Bradley W. Blotch of the Huffington Post and his critique of the way the Literature Prize winner is chosen:

In the next few days, a writer will be elevated into the literary pantheon by the Swedish Academy, which will bestow upon him or her the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. The selection will most likely set off a flurry of commentary by the literati as well as handwringing by those passed over.

An essay by Charles McGrath in the New York Times Book Review, however, suggests that there is a way to game the system. It turns out that the Swedish Academy is a remarkably insular organization, being composed entirely of Swedes and primarily dedicated to safeguarding the “purity, vigor and majesty” of the Swedish language. Given the body’s name this should not be surprising, but being reminded of it somehow undercuts its authority to make pronouncements on world literature, Alfred Nobel’s will notwithstanding. More interestingly, in at least two cases that McGrath discusses, the Nobel went to a writer whose Swedish translator sat on the board and led the lobbying effort.

The course of action for a savvy publisher is clear: make sure your promising writers are translated into Swedish (even if that country doesn’t otherwise fit into your distribution plans) and make sure the translation is done by one of the 18 academy members.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is just one example of a larger and more interesting phenomenon: how elite gate-keeping institutions are influenced by personal connections. For instance, when nominating committees of elite organizations gather behind closed doors, the first question generally asked regarding serious candidates is, “Who here knows this person?” Of course, personal knowledge is a valuable thing and provides greater nuance and more dimensions along which a committee can evaluate candidates. But the underlying assumption is that if a person is worth knowing he or she will be known — an assumption that attributes a certain level of omniscience to the nominating committee that may or may not be justified, depending on its own level of insularity.

The human fallibility of these screening mechanisms are all the more important to remember in a time when we are awash in invitation-only gatherings — the World Economic Forum, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Aspen Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, the TED Conference — that constantly reconfigure the velvet rope around those deemed worth knowing. The rationale, of course, is that that there is inherent value in corralling a bunch of very smart, highly networked people together in, say, a Swiss ski village, and seeing what results. That may be true. But it also has the effect of closing off the network to those who could benefit from it the most — those one or two rungs below the threshold. Both the institutions themselves and society as a whole would be better off if greater focus were placed on connecting those at the top with those poised to break out of the middle, rather than segmenting the upper echelon into finer and finer calibrations of exclusivity.