This year's winner of the Nobel Prize for literature loves America—the America before Columbus arrived most of all.
The secretary of the $1.4 million prize had already dismissed the US as “too isolated, too insular” for the taste of the Swedish jury this year.
So a European winner from the continent Horace Engdahl calls the “centre of the literary world,” seemed always more likely than a call for Philip Roth.
Le Clézio is not a fully paid member of the Washington-hating Paris intelligentsia. But his subjects are commonly the peoples erased by dominant cultures—in America, Africa and the Pacific.
The actual choice—of the 68-year old French novelist, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio—is merely a pinch of salt in the American wound.
Le Clézio—known to his admirers as JMG—is not a fully paid member of the Washington-hating Paris intelligentsia.
He is a wanderer who spends time at his family home in Mauritius, in Nice, and in New Mexico.
But his subjects are commonly the peoples erased by dominant cultures—in America, Africa and the Pacific.
His first book, Le Proces Verbal (1963), is still his best known outside France. Its story of a lost boy in Nice, who grapples with both philosophy and a lost girl on a billiard table, has echoes of Albert Camus, an earlier French Nobel winner.
The experimental text included crossed out words and newspaper cuttings of the hero's admissions to psychiatric hospital. The Times Literary Supplement praised at the time the book’s “own form of lucid lyricism which suggests that he might one day produce something quite remarkable.”
His early work was also much influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre, who famously declined the Nobel. In L'Extase Materielle, he took on the existential master's scale of priorities, the “être of the material world over the neant of the human mind,” as the Times Literary Supplement put it. In 1976 Le Clézio translated fragments of Mayan Chronicles, Les Propheties du Chilam Balam. In 1980 he added Trois Villes Saintes, a barely readable exercise in shamanistic geography.
One of his favorite authors is another writer who preferred exile and exiles, James Joyce. But he is also an admirer of the author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson. After Le Clézio’s novel Ourania in 2006, the story of an Inuit alcoholic's son at a school for abandoned children, the Times Literary Supplement critic Adrian Tahourdin reported rumors that a Nobel Prize was on the way.
Le Clézio’s later works have focused on themes of oppression in more traditional forms than those at the beginning of his career. His best novel and the one that reveals his life and obsessions the most is Revolutions (2003)—a 550-page epic story that runs from Nice to London and Mexico to Mauritius. It shifts in time from the French revolutionary wars to the massacre of Mexican students in 1968. Its availability in English would be a major gain from today’s news.
He now becomes the thirteenth Frenchman to get the accolade, the first since 1985. He would have been the fourteenth had not Sartre refused. The United States has won ten—the last for Toni Morrison in 1993.
The Nobel secretary’s remarks last week about the unlikelihood of an American winner have caused much unfavorable comment in Britain. The politician and author, Denis MacShane, called the row: "the last curse of George W. Bush.” Until there is a new president, “anti-Americanism, the new socialism of fools, will be on a pedestal in Europe.”
MacShane, who was Europe’s minister in Tony Blair's government, accused the Nobel Committee of “lessening its own standing by associating literary merit with the possession of the right passport.”
But he is right about the insularity of America in publishing translations: “It would be wonderful if it were as easy to buy an English Le Clézio in New York as a French Philip Roth in Paris".