J. M.G. Le Clézio on His Birthplace

Nobel Prize winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio recalls his birthplace, Nice, with decidedly mixed feelings in the latest in Newsweek International’s series, The City.

04.06.11 10:40 PM ET

This corner of the Mediterranean is very old indeed. In the 1960s, workmen on a hill, prophetically called Terra Amata (Beloved Earth), discovered the remains of a prehistoric camp. Archaeologist Henry de Lumley identified it as a meeting—and feasting—place dating back roughly half a million years, perhaps, ironically, to the ancestors of the Berbers who would later populate the whole rim of the Mediterranean, from Algeria to Lebanon. The name of the town came from the Greeks— Niké, victory. And the Romans settled here and founded a city high in the hills for fear of the pirates and mosquitoes that infested the coast; they built an arena to practice their favorite pastimes, circus games and the immolation of Christians. They say the ghost of a martyred virgin still haunts that district.

What does it mean for me, being born and growing up in such a town? Does its antiquity give me (and everyone born here) a curious feeling of superiority, a kind of skepticism, an inclination to fatalism? As if everything had come here, carried by the sea waves and the invasions, as if everything had landed here, driven by storms or coming with the tide, onto the worn and weather-beaten pebbled beach.

Nissa, which became Nizza under the rule of the Genoese and of the Savoyards, had nothing of the provincial about it. It produced great men like the geographer Gioffredo and the mathematician Cassini, the patriot Garibaldi, the audacious general Masséna, and many artists, like the religious painters Ludovico Brea and Giovanni Canavesio. Nice is animated by a proud libertarian spirit and uses as its emblem a combative red eagle (its beak turned to the right) whose claws clutch the three totem hills of the county: Mont Boron, Castle Hill, and Mont Alban. It shares with Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico the privilege of keeping a live eagle in a cage (a curious symbol of freedom!).

Nice has produced strong women, too, such as the heroine Catherine Ségurane, who led the people of Nice in resisting Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha while brandishing her washing board (there is a more salacious version of this story, but we'll leave that for another time). Nice's marriage with France, under Napoleon III, put an end to its independence but not to its creative or artistic force, since it produced or served as home to such writers as Jean Lorrain, Maupassant, Nietzsche, and Paul Valéry (who founded the Centre Universitaire Méditerranéen there). After an earthquake, the humorist Alphonse Allais invented the chambardoscope (roughly translated as a noise-o-scope), capable, he said, of foretelling earthquakes. In more recent times, Nice welcomed such great painters as Matisse and Chagall.

Nice's memoir is not without its tragic moments. During the last world war, it was home to a racist movement and to the persecution of Jews by the Gestapo. One of its prestigious hotels, a white confection on the Cimiez hill, was a site for torture and killings. In 1960, Nice was one of the ports that welcomed refugees fleeing the Algerian war.

I was born in Nissa la Bella, I grew up here, and there is probably no place in the world I understand better.

Modernity has visited ancient Nissa as it has other places blessed by the sun and sea. The beautiful residences of the English and Russians have given way to sometimes hideous apartment buildings with glittery facades reflecting the glare of the sky and sea. The influx of the elderly in the '80s permanently changed the balance of the local population, once so diverse, active, and industrious, now replaced by retirees in search of an eternal tan—the École de Nice sculptor Sacha Sosno waxed ironic about the grating music of the beach chairs being opened and closed on the Promenade des Anglais.

The leading tendency here is not toward openness: People waver between frank fascism and latent xenophobia. My latest find is a T-shirt with the motto sieu nissart et m'embatti, which could be translated as "I don't care, I am Nissart." No doubt this is one momentary attitude in the history of this town—it's the advantage of being heir to such an ancient past. I was born in Nissa la Bella, I grew up here, and there is probably no place in the world I understand better. My feelings for Nice are a bit like what is sometimes written on Mexican cakes for Valentine's Day: te amo y te odio. I love you and I hate you.

(This essay was translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell.)

More from the "The City" series:

Wole Soyinka on Lagos
Jan Morris salutes Liverpool
Junot Diaz savors Tokyo
Antonio Skarmeta reflects on Chile
P.J. O'Rourke's splendid junkyard in Toledo, Ohio
Kana Makiya rediscovers Baghdad

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Le Clézio, the 2008 Nobel laureate in literature, is the author, most recently, of Desert.