J.-M. G. Le Clézio and the Nobel Prize

Issue #108
Spring 2009

J.-M. G. Le Clézio and the Nobel Prize:  This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature selection has proven controversial, and to some, disappointing. One French critic fumed that the winner’s fiction lacked "universality," and even worse, often made it to the bestseller lists. The dean of German literary critics, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, expressed astonishment that the award would go to an author he had not read, and that once again Philip Roth was overlooked. Most adversely affected were large American commercial publishers who at the moment of the Swedish Academy’s announcement had no English translations in stock. These elements taken together will tell us something about J.-M. G. Le Clézio, and the prize he has just received.

As French novelists go, Le Clézio is somewhat atypical. Born to a French mother and a British father, he is not Paris based; he has lived and continues to live all over the world. The settings for his novels reflect his wanderings, the Island of Mauritius, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Southern France, and even when sizeable parts of a story unfold in Paris it is in rather ethnically diverse sections such as the thirteenth arrondissement where portions ofGoldfish (1996) take place.

Le Clézio began his career in 1963 with The Interrogation which won the Prix Renaudot, an award given to works deemed too challenging for the more staid Prix Goncourt. While this novel with its detective fiction ambiance and striking lack of psychological characterization certainly displays the influence of literary theories associated with the New Novel, postwar France’s effort to reinvent literature, the young writer’s future development was already apparent. The setting was Nice and the descriptions luxuriant. This early effort established Le Clézio’s reputation as an innovator in style and form, but neither would continue to be the case. His subsequent novels have become increasingly mainstream in structure, and his prose so beautifully descriptive that at times it seems that his lovely depictions of the environment cloak the fact that he really has nothing to say.

Such a judgment is commonly rendered, but quite misleading. Le Clézio’s main characters tend to be men and women uprooted by historical circumstances, or, as in the case of The African (2004), a fictionalized version of his father’s medical activities in Nigeria, by choice. These figures ceaselessly comment on the modern world from its margins, and even when in a novel such as Hunger’s Ritornello (2008) where a family from Mauritius seems perfectly integrated into the Parisian middle-class, they remain in their minds outsiders, nostalgic for an irretrievable past, ill at ease in the present. It is through such characters that Le Clézio surveys contemporary society, no matter what the novel’s historical period, and what he sees is rarely pleasant. Nature raped, non-western societies looted, cultures destroyed and families sundered, all in the name of progress. Rather than have nothing to say, Le Clézio’s novels at times falter under the weight of all they try to say.

Attempting to integrate social commentary with literary artistry risks substituting good intentions for aesthetic achievement, and Le Clézio’s novels can fall into this trap. Obviously few artists can achieve this integration so smoothly and succinctly as did Milan Kundera in The Joke when one character walks up to a man vomiting in the streets of Cold War Prague and announces, "I know what you mean," but more than other professional writers, Le Clézio is prone to give his moral outrage too free a rein. A typical example would be Ourania (2006), a beautifully written work set in Mexico whose main character, Daniel, confronts the social injustice and ecological waste inflicted on the Third World. The reader must certainly acknowledge the devastation, but, the vision of a utopian alternative is cloying, and while the presentation of the sundry indecencies profits from the exotic setting, it is otherwise all too familiar.

Along with the gorgeous prose, Le Clézio’s real strength lies in his evocation of displacement in the modern world. This phenomenon can be physical, psychological or both; its myriad permutations in his novels are often similar, but never the same. He is a great novelist of rootlessness, particularly among people buoyed by the illusion they really have roots.

Whatever his occasional shortcomings, the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Le Clézio is really quite comprehensible given his achievements and what would appear to be the Swedish Academy’s strategy. Le Clézio is a gifted writer who has had a long and distinguished career as a novelist, and an aura of literary innovation is associated with his name. At the same time his books are accessible to a serious reading public, many of whom share his genuine concern about the current state of the world, and his prolific output, coupled with his soaring themes, have garnered him the attention of literary critics, at least in France. While Philip Roth might suffer in the Nobel jury’s eyes for a perceived lack of social involvement, Le Clézio’s weakness may be too much of it, yet in this instance that proves to be an asset. Finally, if large American presses were caught unawares by this award, this can only indicate how out of touch American publishers have become with European fiction. Smaller houses, such as Curbstone Press, David R. Godine and the University of Nebraska have long been conscious of Le Clézio’s solid reputation.

If J.-M. G. Le Clézio is a fine choice for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, it is not because of his overpowering literary genius. Were that the criterion there would be no annual prize. Le Clézio’s selection as this year’s laureate is a well-deserved recognition of his lifetime commitment to the value of literature, and more specifically to language’s capacity to help humanity rediscover itself while passing through a once very beautiful world.  —William Cloonan

William Cloonan is Richard Chapple Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University. He writes an annual essay on the contemporary novel in France for the French Review, and is currently working on a translation of Olivier Rolin’s novel Méroé.