Saturday, October 18, 2008

Le Clézio, le Nobeliste

J.M.G. Le ClézioSeveral weeks ago, Reggie H. wrote about the newest Nobel Laureate in literature, J.M.G. Le Clézio, who sparked the same question--"WHO?"--that attended his previous French Nobel literature predecessor 23 years ago, the most Faulknerian of the nouveaux romanciers, Claude Simon. (I am not counting 2000 laureate Gao Xiangjin, who lives in France but whose award came for his Chinese-language prose and plays.) In an email exchange, I told Reggie that I'd never read any of Le Clézio's works (unlike Simon's) and had few thoughts about him either way, beyond my immediate criticism of the neo-colonialist and exoticist comments from the Academy and some of the initial commentators. (Not everyone was surprised by the victory, though, and the French thought the award fitting and due.) I added, in agreement with the end of Reggie's post, that there are a number of significant writers across the globe, and in particular outside Europe, some even writing in French, who were and are quite deserving of this top honor.

In the early 1980s it appeared that the biennial Neustadt International Prize for Literature, presented by World Literature Today, was a tip for the Nobel, but successive winners since then, from 2006's Claribel Alegría, backwards through Adam Zagajewski, Álvaro Mútis, David Malouf, Nuruddin Farah, Assia Djebar, Kamau Brathwaite, the late João Cabral de Melo Neto, and so on, have not been Nobelized. The last Neustadt Nobel laureate was 1982's winner, Octavio Paz. All of these writers have been widely acclaimed, and as I noted in a previous post, there are many others for whom you could make a strong case.

Nevertheless, Le Clézio does, as I said, have his champions, and at least one British critic celebrated the backhanded slap at the US's self-regard and American imperialism. He lives in the US part of every year, but he is, it's fair to say, not really on this country's literary radar in the same way that some other French writers, like the highly controversial Michel Houellebecq, for example, are. And he doesn't appear to be well known by our bilingual neighbors to the north, though according to the article you could find his French-language texts in Québec's bookstores. Just after the announcement I informally checked at several bookstores in New York City and Chicago, though at least a handful of US presses, like the University of Chicago Press, University of Nebraska Press, David R. Godine, and others, have published translations of his novels, and not one had a single translated Le Clézio text, though not too long ago, I think I saw a copy of one of his books on the long smorgasbord of remaindered books at one of my haunts, Powell's in Chicago.

Neither the brief, translated New York Times excerpts or the Nobel website's snippet of Le Clézio's work were encouraging (the New Yorker will for the first time be publishing one of his stories this week), so I went to the library and, in lazy fashion, looked at the several of his books that were available in English translation. (Interestingly, I thought, given the number of students and colleagues who read French, almost none of the French ones had been checked out.) His award-winning début novel, The Interrogation (Le procès-verbal), had been checked out, but I did see several large volumes from the early 1970s, War and Giants, which appear to be quite formally experimental in a Nouveau Roman-influenced vein, and, I assume, less likely to draw in casual readers who want to catch up. The latter ones, like 1991's Onitsha, a fictional retelling of his own experiences in Nigeria, seem to fall in the vein of more conventional, contemporary French prose or some destabilizing midway point between fiction and autobiography. (The French in fact have pioneered an entire genre, autofiction, that does this.) This particular volume looked interesting, not least in its blurring of genre, so I've put it on my list of books to read when I have time to do so.

Blogger and critic Guillaume Thoroude sums up Le Clézio's honor and his work this way:

So Le Clézio - why not? He has everything going for him: he's the perfect son-in-law, he still carries the aura of a child genius who conquered both experimental and classical writing, and he's one of the most studied French writers outside France. So the Nobel prize will make a lot of people happy, and frankly, what's the problem with that?

A German critic wasn't so charmed. British critic Mark Lawson suggests, as others have, that the Swedish Academy's political and and aesthetic biases have created a hurdle for contemporary mainstream American fiction. Le Clézio's own thoughts about his work, pre-Nobel, can be found here. One of his own comments, ironic in light of some of the post-Nobel write ups, interests me considerably:

First, I shall say that it doesn’t upset me at all to be unclassifiable. I think that the main characteristic of the novel is that is unclassifiable, in other words that it is a polymorphous genre which is part of an interbreeding, a brew of ideas which is, ultimately, the reflection of our multipolar world.

That said, I think, like you, that the French literary establishment, heir to the so-called universal ideas of the Encyclopédistes, has always had a deplorable tendency to marginalise any ideas from elsewhere by describing them as "exotic". Rimbaud and Segalen paid the price in their time. Even today, writers from Southern countries are only published here if they agree to be categorised in the "exotic" category. The example that comes to mind is the Mauritian writer, Ananda Devi, whose work I championed when I was on Gallimard’s panel of readers. Their response was that her manuscript was not exotic enough!

One other point that Reggie makes it the fate of poets in the last few rounds of Nobel honorees: there have been none, or rather, no writers working primarily in the genre of poetry. Many of the responses to Horace Engdahl's statements focused narrowly on contemporary US fiction, as if the contemporary American poetry landscape didn't exist. Some of the greatest and most original non-US poets of last 100 years have been honored, but David Orr notes that, oddly enough, no American-born poet, other than T.S. Eliot, who moved to the UK quite early, has received the Nobel Prize, despite the widespread consensus that American poetry, especially since Whitman and Dickinson, which is to say, since the late 19th century, has been among the most influential in the world. Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Lowell, and on you might do down the list--not a single one of them received the Nobel Prize. (Pound's overtly fascistic leanings completely disqualified him, I imagine.) Orr suggests that Adrienne Rich and John Ashbery, whose influence extends not only throughout the English-speaking world, but also in other literary traditions these days, would be leading candidates, and I would agree, adding that there are about two dozen other American poets quite worthy of the honor.

But as Reggie notes, it's not just American poetry that's been shut out of late, it's poets from across the world. Perhaps with a White House change for the better, one of the US's major poets, and the rich and expansive tradition, especially since Modernism, will be honored.

Ted Gioia serves up an alternative Nobel universe. I think he ignores poetry, drama and most writers from beyond the Euro-American axis, and some of the choices are just silly (Dr. Seuss?* John Le Carré? J.K. Rowling?). What do you think of it?

Anyways, get to your reading!

*I learned to read from Dr. Seuss's books, so I'm not dissing him, just arguing that he might not be the most appropriate candidate for a Nobel Prize in literature.

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