Saturday, October 11, 2008
2008 Nobel Prize for Literature: Jean-Marie Le Clézio
So, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio wins the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature, and across the anglophone world there are joyful, rooftop-to-rooftop cheers of ‘who?’ and ‘why have I never heard of him?’ Speaking for myself, I was sufficiently ashamed of my ignorance to at least rootle around online a little, to see (for instance) which of Le Clézio’s many books might be worth picking up. Because, yes, I had never heard of him until I heard the news yesterday; and, yes, I’ve never read his books. The first thing I discovered was that despite promising-sounding titles like Le déluge (1966), L’extase matérielle (1967), Les géants (1973), Voyages de l’autre côté (1975), Mondo et autres histoires (1978) and Gens des nuages (1990), in fact Le Clézio has never written a science fiction novel. Imagine! Not even one. But, I’m not one to allow prejudice to get in my way, and I shall give him a go anyway.
Wikipedia-english and Wikipédia.fr both have fairly full articles, although almost all the links for specific novels are to stubs. (For instance, here’s the dot-fr site’s entry on Mondo et autres histoires, in its entirety: ‘c’est un recueil de contes publié en 1978 par Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio aux éditions Gallimard’). From either of those sites you’ll discover that, until the mid-1970s, Le Clézio’s novels were formally experimental examples of the nouveau roman but that subsequently ‘he abandoned experimentation, and the mood of his novels became less tormented as he broached themes like childhood, adolescence, and traveling, which attracted a broader, more popular audience’. Actually, his later books mostly seem to be versions of the lives of his family: La Quarantaine (1995) is about his grandfather; L’Africain (2004) about his own boyhood in Niger where his rather severe-sounding father worked as a doctor; Ritournelle de la faim (2008) is based on the life of his own mother, and so on. Throughout his career he has demonstrated a thoroughly commendable interest in the dispossessed, the marginalised, the racially and economically displaced and oppressed. There are novels about indigenous mesoamerican culture, which he apparently admires greatly; there are are a good number about North and Central Africa; and there are novels from other sites of human suffering and endurance. In Etoile errante (1992) Esther, a Jewish survivor of the Nazis, treks arduously towards postwar Jerusalem to start a new life, passing, coming the other way, (I quote Donna Seaman) ‘a stream of equally despairing, newly displaced refugees, among them Nejma, a Palestinian girl. Nejma then chronicles the misery of a gravely ill-provisioned camp and her heroic escape.’ Which sounds like a bag of laughs. More to the point, the Nobel citation praises Le Clézio as ‘author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization,’ which sounds good.
With respect to his earlier fiction I was quite taken with this one-star amazon.fr review of La Guerre (1970) from one puzzled-sounding Parisian reader:
Difficile d’expliquer pourquoi on n’a pas aimé un livre quand on a pas réussi à comprendre s’il y a des personnages, s’il y a une histoire. C’est très pensé... mais difficile à accrocher.
That’s the kind of dispraise that actually functions as praise, I’d say (or maybe I just want to believe so, since I’ve myself had reviews the jist of which have been that second sentence there). The later fiction, by contrast, gets a number of thoroughly positive and respectful reader responses on amazon.fr, although from time to time you get comments of the order of (this is from a review of 2004’s Ourania) ‘l’ensemble se lit facilement, même si je regrette l’absence de magie’.
Otherwise there are enough tasters to make him sound like either a relatively banal, or a reasonably exciting, thinker, depending on where you trawl. As an example of the former I give you this quotation from his non-fictional L’Extase matérielle (1967):
Le corps est vie, l’esprit est mort. La matière est être, l’intellect néant. Et le secret absolu de la pensée est sans doute ce désir jamais oublié de se replonger dans la plus extatique fusion avec la matière.
Really? I’d tend to disagree. But then, an example of the latter: his 2003 novel Révolutions :
Ce n’est pas le paradis qui est perdu, c’est le temps avec ses révolutions.
That sounds more like it. It’s clear enough that Le Clézio’s main interest is in the situation of the displaced and oppressed, particularly under our globalised logic of ceaseless migration, the rootless diasporic motion of ‘populations très pauvres, venues de tous les coins de l’Europe et de l’Asie, des Russes, des Italiens, des Grecs, des émigrés africains, et’ [Le Clézio’s wife is Algerian, so he’s particularly drawn to this group] ‘les premiers rapatriés fuyant la guerre d’Algérie.’ He treats the human condition now as one predominently of ‘L’exil, la recherche d’une terre’. I suppose the danger with this is that it will strike a reader as all very well and good; but worthy and sound instead of actually engaging or inspiring. Or perhaps I’m too cynical; maybe people will be interested enough in these topics to want to read fiction about them.
Two books, from my browsing, most piqued my interest. One was the very early Le jour où Beaumont fit connaissance avec sa douleur (1964), with its intriguing almost malone-meurt-ian opening paragraph:
La première fois que Beaumont dut faire connaissance avec sa douleur, ce fut au lit, vers quelque chose comme trois heures vingt-cinq du matin. Il se retourna sur le matelas, péniblement, et sentit la résistance des couvertures et des draps qui participaient à son mouvement de rotation, mais d’une façon incongrue, en s’y opposant. Comme si une main invisible avait tordu les tissus autour de son torse et de ses hanches immobiles.
Otherwise I was thinking to myself: given that my French really isn’t very good, and given that reading a whole novel in the language is a slow process for me, I am disinclined to hop about or overcommit myself. So I’ll probably plump for what I take to be Le Clézio’s most famous novel, Désert (1980).
In terms of topic this seems of a type with other late Le Clézio: a critique of the persisting consequences of European white imperialism, the violence of globalised economic liberalism combined with a sharp sense of some of the more patronising western attitudes to the ‘third-world’. A tad agit-prop, maybe; a trifle tub-thumping; but surely worth a read.
La toute jeune Lalla a pour ancêtres les «hommes bleus» [i.e. the desert-dwelling Tuareg], guerriers du désert du Río de Oro, chassés et traqués du sud au nord par les conquérants français, puis impitoyablement massacrés. Mais le sang des hommes bleus a survécu en Lalla. La vie de la petite Maure, dans un bidonville [shanty-town] d’une grande cité proche de la mer, est constamment doublée, dominée par l’épopée chantante, obstinée, orgueilleuse de la race que les maîtres d’autrefois avaient cru vaincre. Lalla, enfant du désert, est fascinée par l’apparition d’un mystérieux homme bleu qu’elle nomme Es Ser, c’est-à-dire «le Secret». Marquée par la puissance de la nature et des légendes, par son amour pour le Hartani, un jeune berger muet qui lui révèle son corps, par son évasion manquée vers «leur» désert avant l’exil à Marseille dans un quartier misérable car ses frères immigrés végètent. Lalla a beau travailler dans un hôtel sordide, être enceinte du Hartani, devenir une cover-girl célèbre grâce à un photographe de mode ébloui par sa beauté, rien n’éteindra au cœur de la jeune femme sa foi religieuse et sa passion du désert. Un jour, elle y retournera toute seule, en rescapée de l’enfer des hommes.
I don’t doubt that Marseille is a horrid place for many impoverished Arab immigrants, women not least; but nevertheless this account of the book makes me wonder if it is a dull and worthy book, for all that it won major literary prizes in France: made me wonder, in other words, whether I’d have to trog dutifully through it. But then, checking the readers’ reports on amazon.fr, I found the deal being sealed:
Le CLézio est un passionné de désert, et il le montre dans cette oeuvre. Deux récits qui ne forment qu’une seule et même histoire : celle des “gens des nuages”, de l’époque coloniale au 20e siècle finissant. Nour, Lalla, Ma el-Aïnine, El-Azraq, le Hartani nous donnent à vivre un désert terre de légendes, de mirages et de passion. Nous sentons le sable chaud, l’incandescence de l’air avec eux. Nous prenons les interminables pistes à leur suite. Nous voyons les mêmes mirages que leurs regards. Nous avons soif avec eux. Et finalement, nous sommes malheureux de les laisser partir à la dernière page, ces nomades, comme s’ils étaient sortis d’un rêve...
Now we’re talking.
In Ted Gioia’s alternative universe, Don DeLillo won the Nobel this year:
Adam, thanks for bringing us better up to speed on this. Thanks for sharing!
I’m rather sure I read Desert, and maybe Mondo too. In my experience, Le Clezio is not a dull-official author, it’s rather easy to enjoy it.
You may take some agit prop out of it, if you want, but as some kind of after-the-book consequence - you don’t (have to) care about it. Sad it’s the point that always seems to stick out in the critics - maybe because it’s easier to talk about this than about the writing itself.
Read it in French, though, and I can imagine the translation making a difference here, so read in French if you’re confortable enough.
The fact that a French-man won the Nobel Prize for Literature will certainly annoy the anglophiles. After all, everyone now accepts that English is the international language.
I apologise for the satire, but speak as a native English speaker. Then, if English is unacceptable, on grounds of linguistic imperialism, what about Esperanto?
Yes Esperanto was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature, in the name of Icelandic poet Baldur Ragnarrson.
This is true. Esperanto does have its own original literature. Please check http://www.esperanto.net or http//www.lernu.net
Adam should be paid for his posts.
"In Ted Gioia’s alternative universe, Don DeLillo won the Nobel this year:
Quite seriously enjoyable stuff! (Despite the fact that I have no problem with Engdahl’s rant)
Since I imagine most of us share Adam’s prior-to-now ignorance of Gustave Le Clezio, would there be any interest in an Adam Bede style Valve reading event? I found a list of his books that are supposedly available in English here (which I’ve pasted at the bottom of this comment) and here‘s the link for what Amazon can send you right now. Since I fall pretty firmly in the “insular American” category, if by that one means “don’t speak French,” and I imagine that any reading event would have to presume that as a baseline,
there seem to be four choices: Wandering Star, The Mexican Dream, The Prospector, and Onitsha. I’m particularly interested in the last one, since Onitsha was the town where Nigeria’s first mass market publishing industry was, at roughly the same period I take the novel to be set in. I can’t tell if that’s relevant or not, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
The Interrogation / translated from the French by Daphne Woodward. – New York : Atheneum, 1964. – Translation of Le procès-verbal
Fever / translated from the French by Daphne Woodward. – New York : Atheneum, 1966. – Translation of La fièvre
The Flood / translated from the French by Peter Green. – London : H. Hamilton, 1967. – Translation of Le déluge
Terra Amata / translated from the French by Barbara Bray. – London : Hamilton, 1969 ; New York : Atheneum, 1969. – Translation of Terra amata
The Book of Flights : an Adventure Story / translated from the French by Simon Watson Taylor. – London : Cape, 1971 ; New York : Atheneum, 1972. – Translation of Le livre des fuites
War / translated from the French by Simon Watson Taylor. – London : Cape, 1973 ; New York : Atheneum, 1973. – Translation of La guerre
The Giants / translated from the French by Simon Watson Taylor. – London : Cape, 1975 ; New York : Atheneum, 1975. – Translation of Les géants
The Mexican Dream, or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations / translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan. – Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1993. – Translation of Le rêve mexicain ou la pensée interrompue
The Prospector / translated from the French by Carol Marks. – Boston : David R. Godine, 1993. – Translation of Le chercheur d’or
Onitsha / translated by Alison Anderson. – Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 1997. –
Translation of Onitsha
The Round & Other Cold Hard Facts = La ronde et autres faits divers / translated by C. Dickson. – Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2002. – Translation of La ronde et autres faits divers
Wandering Star : a Novel / translated by C. Dickson. – Willimantic, CT : Curbstone Press, 2004. – Translation of Étoile errante
"Adam should be paid for his posts.”
Well, I’d certainly be up for such a reading group. Anybody else?
Aaron, that bibliography is a sad tale of woe for the state of translation in the U.S.
Meantime, agree that Adam should be paid for his posts (especially if he puts parenthetical translations of long quotations in them)!
I’d be up for this reading group. Availability will be the challenge. Chapters/Indigo is listing Onitsha as ‘in stock,’ though Amazon says shippable in 3-6 weeks. I find only a couple of his books available in translation at my university library. Maybe we could all try to get a copy of Onitsha, since it’s Aaron’s first choice (and sounds very interesting) and plan to work through it in a couple of months when it has arrived?