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Page last updated at 16:57 GMT, Friday, 17 October 2008 17:57 UK

And the winner is... who?

JMG Le Clezio
JMG Le Clezio after winning his Nobel prize


His name is largely unknown in Britain and the United States, but the recipient of the most feted prize in literature has much he could teach us about life today, says Lisa Jardine.

The announcement last week that JMG Le Clezio is this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was greeted with a predictable chorus of indignation by the Anglophone media.

"Le Clezio: Who's he?" shouted the headline in the Los Angeles Times. "I've never read his books. In fact, until Thursday morning, I'd never heard of him," confessed the LA Times columnist cheerfully, as he went on to deplore the way in which North American novelists have allegedly been consistently ignored and overlooked by the Nobel Prize Jury (the last American to win was Toni Morrison in 1993).

Backpacker in Bangkok
His protagonists seek to find themselves through travel

In the London Evening Standard, David Sexton was outraged at the thought that the Nobel Prize had gone to an author who is largely out of print in English. Le Clezio's work, Sexton had discovered, is barely available to non-French speakers: "Why can't I read books by a Nobel Frenchman?" he complained. "All I've been able to find so far, a few extracts from his most famous book, Desert, seem a bit simplistic about noble savagery. But what do I know?"

Critic and literary commentator Mark Lawson revealed his own fruitless attempts to learn more about Le Clezio using an internet search engine: "Inevitably, the choice of this Google-thin writer will revive accusations of obscurantism and pretension," he grumbled in the Guardian.

The Francophone press, naturally, saw it differently. As they were quick to point out, there is nothing obscure about Le Clezio's prolific literary oeuvre, indeed, he has been tipped to win the Nobel Prize for a number of years, and been the recipient of the most prestigious French literary prizes. French critics hail him as "a great French monument who towers over our literature."

Toni Morrison
The last American to win the Nobel, in 1993 - Toni Morrison

Le Clezio was born in Nice in 1940, and raised and educated bilingually, in French and English. His father was an English government doctor, stationed in Nigeria. His mother was French, and both parents (in fact first cousins) were descended from a Breton family who had settled on the island of Mauritius in the 18th Century.

Mauritius is the setting for crucial episodes in a number of his novels - including his most recent work of fiction, Ritournelle de la Faim, published this year - while he himself divides his time between Brittany and Albuquerque, New Mexico (where he teaches). Announcing the award, Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, described Le Clezio as "a traveller, a citizen of the world, a nomad".

Loneliness, isolation

Le Clezio's writing is nomadic too. It's a quest for understanding of the human condition, and it repeatedly takes the form of a literal journey. In Onitsha, the 12-year-old hero, Fintan Allen travels with his Italian mother on a slow boat to Africa.

Lisa Jardine

Maybe Le Clézio is just the writer to honour at this particular moment in our European history - his novels capture with a painful acuteness the fate of the European, adrift in a vast unfamiliar world

There the English father he has never known lives a faded colonial life, brutally exploitative of the local community, full of pettiness and posturing. Fintan meanwhile discovers Nigeria's disturbing energy and finds - in his loneliness and isolation - a kind of dangerous comfort in the habits and beliefs of the local population.

This sense of comfort is disrupted when violence flairs, and the family are buffeted back to Europe to try once again to find their bearings. In Revolutions, it is the history of violent upheaval on the island of Mauritius that haunts the novel's hero, as he once again goes in search of himself and his family's origins on the other side of the ocean. Ricocheting between continents, the European fails to find settled contentment at either end of his travels.

"Exile and a search for a land to call one's own are the very first things I was conscious of," says Le Clezio. "It has always seemed to me, as Flannery O'Connor said, that a novelist ought to be driven to write about the earliest years of his life, when he first learned to understand the world." The Nobel Prize Committee saw in him an Everyman - representative of no particular country or language - searching, like so many other migrants around the world, for some way to root themselves in an incomprehensibly shifting and changing world.

"He is not a particularly French writer if you look at him from a strictly cultural point of view," the Nobel Prize jury wrote of him. "He has gone through many different phases of his development as a writer and has come to include other civilizations, other modes of living than the Western, in his writing."

In fact, one might argue that Le Clezio is just the writer to honour at this particular moment in our European history. His novels capture with a painful acuteness the fate of the European, adrift in a vast unfamiliar world in which global social, economic and political realities impose themselves upon all-too-narrow national experiences.

His protagonists wander anxiously, vainly looking for a reassuring, settled Paradise elsewhere - in Africa or South America - and finding instead the threatening unfamiliarity and violence of developing countries locked in their own struggles for independence. Looking for confirming identity, Le Clezio's itinerant heroes find themselves to be, in fact, irrelevant.

Fate from far away

Le Clezio's novels also reflect the dawning realisation of the West, in the week in which his prize was announced, that the fate of nations like Britain or the United States might be decided unexpectedly by the movement of a butterfly's wing on the other side of the world.

JMG Le Clezio
JMG Le Clezio and wife Marina in 1963

How we understand ourselves is indeed dependent on what is happening in places we barely know. We have, perhaps for the first time, become painfully aware of the 24-hour operation of the global markets. We go to sleep to more or less comforting news from the US, and wake up to find out how traders in Tokyo and Shanghai reacted while we slept.

Le Clezio's Nobel Prize was announced just as the public at large discovered - perhaps for the first time - that Iceland was to play a leading role in the unfolding financial drama in Britain. A volcanic island with a population of under 300,000, which had only recently shifted from relying on fisheries and agriculture, to becoming an international player in the field of financial services, this tiny republic was suddenly in the spotlight because of the collapse of its banks.

Only then did it become clear how many individuals in Britain had invested their life savings in high-interest Icelandic accounts. Who would have dreamed that our financial destinies were inextricably linked to an unfamiliar land of mountains and glaciers, which many of us had only seen in television travel programmes?

Meanwhile, as the US presidential election campaign entered its final weeks, a report about the conduct of the Governor of Alaska turned the eyes of the world on this sparsely populated, remote state. Suddenly, a part of the world about which many of us knew little became the unfamiliar setting for a drama which could effect the political future of the entire world.

Icelandic cash
Panic on the pavements of Reykjavik means concern on the streets of Britain

As Ivan Moore, an independent pollster based in Anchorage, Alaska put it, on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on 11 October: "Let's face it, before this happened people probably didn't know that Alaska was part of the United States… no one really knew who we were or what we were about. I mean, the fact that I'm sitting here in Anchorage talking to you guys, the fact that national people and international people are paying attention to what is going on in Alaska is extraordinary."

We are gradually learning what it means to live in an information age, with the whole world on our doorstep at the click of a computer mouse. Our lives are no longer controlled by the autonomous actions of governments, separated from one another in individual nation states. National borders no longer provide protection from the movements of markets on the other side of the world. Our destinies depend on decisions taken in countries we have barely heard of, in the interests of and on behalf of people we may never meet.

JMG Le Clezio's novels may only now have entered the wider European and American literary landscape, but his arrival on the scene as a world literary figure is extremely timely. As we struggle to understand who we are in this disorienting new global environment, the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature is the writer to help us do so.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Your description of LeClezio's oeuvre informs us of exactly the sort of theme today's serious writers must confront. That is the vast renting of world communities, the fragmentation, and painful reshufflings. Small, self-absorbed stories do not long hold our attention, nor grow in our thoughts.
Edric Larenc, Aksana, Verustad

The fact that various columnists are unaware of Le Clezio's name and oeuvre can only attest to the English-speaking world's cultural insularity. When I was a student in London in 2003, Le Clezio's works were available from my council library, as well as the Social Science library of the LSE (you don't even need to have studied comparative literature to be familiar with him). It is a vast exaggeration to claim that he is unknown to English-speaking readers.
Zornitsa, Montreal, Canada

This is a prize for literature - NOT American, British or English Literature. I happily read books by Russian, French, Italian, German, Spanish and many other non Anglo-Saxon speaking authors, lamentably in translation, with great enjoyment. Congratulation to Le Clezio and even more praise to the prize committee for making this choice.
George Greenwood, Sydney, Australia

The bit about international money markets was a very nice add in. More people need to travel and live in other countries, sometimes other cultures are in your own backyard. Taking a minute to get to know them can be very beneficial, then things won't be so shocking... just natural. Cross referencing people, financing, news and cultures is a wave of the future and everyone should go for the ride.
Melody Fennell, San Francisco, USA

That's really a stretch to compare JMG Le Clezio to political events in the United States or to Iceland's financial problems. I believe Americans see Alaska as "pristine and unspoiled", rather than a developing Third World country. Americans can probably visualize Alaska better than the states of Rhode Island, North Dakota or even New Hampshire. I have never heard of Le Clezio and would have rather read of why he doesn't appear on Anglophone bookshelves, and why the Nobel committee chose him over other authors. From this article, Le Clezio's topics sound trite. Living or growing up in African Third World countries appear consistently in the box office with movies like Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond, and The Constant Gardener.
Will, Highlands Ranch, Colorado, US

I found a Le Clezio book called War in a second-hand bookshop once. I wasn't prepared for how good it was. To this day it remains a favourite of mine, very strange indeed but exciting to read. The point was made that Le Clezio outlook perfectly describes the strange, "disorientating new global environment". This is true, also, on reading him one can see he's really concerned with humankind in general, and our effect upon the planet. A timely writer, indeed.
Nick, Ipswich

The Nobel Prize is a Western award. Western writers are rewarded their excellence, but non-Western authors are largely ignored, only to be rarely picked up on condition of their political dissidence in their countries of origin. Take Arab literature, one of the finest and most interesting in cultural history. Only one author deserved the prize, Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfuz. I wonder whether the recently departed Mahmud Darwish, one of the most celebrated poets in the non-Western world has been even ever considered - but what has the Nobel academy to do with a Palestinian author who speaks of exile and dispossession? And what about Adonis, one of the best poets worldwide nowadays? But a Syrian Arab ought not to expect to be thought of by the wise men in Sweden.
Enrique Ferro, Brussels, Belgium

I find it striking that a major book critic in LA had never heard about a major global author who teaches in Albuquerque, New Mexico, no doubt as a professor at a major university. Perhaps more striking is the fact that his books are barely accessible in English, the "native" language of the students this author teaches. Hooray for America, the Land of the Blissfully Ignorant. I am sure his students were very proud.
Morgan Fleming, University of Georgia, US

Please try & read L'Extase Materielle, an important philosophical essay and which explains the type of feelings you find in Le Clezio's novels. This is a book as powerful to me as La Nausee by Sartre. I love your analysis as to how we are so disconnected from the events that will impact our life/death tomorrow.
Laurence Pieper, Los Angles, California

It is a pity that we, who cannot read French freely enough to enjoy Le Clezio's books are deprived of sharing his characters' disorientation in today's world. If some measure of "place", of contentment and serenity is not found by his characters, we could surely feel that we are not alone in this confusing world. Disorientation is a modern feeling realized in all the nations of our earth.
Patricia J Husband, Nanaimo, British Columbia

Le Clezio is the perfect choice for the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature. Reading again his novels, I come to think that, in this world of immense chaos, nothing compares to the simplicity, the music and the truth of his words.
Lucia, Bucharest, Romania

My first thought when someone wins a major prize for literature in a language I cannot read is to bemoan the fact that I have never mastered more than one language. I do not think to bash others because they haven't bothered to do my work for me in translating the books into the one language I have learned. I hope Le Clezio's work is translated soon and well so that it can be read more widely - but even then all of us who do not read it in the original French will not be getting the full flavour of his use of language. This is a most compelling argument for teaching all children at least two languages when they are young as it has been proven that once you have mastery of two, others are much easier to learn later in life. Le Clezio speaks both English and French, perhaps even other languages. Would people be as annoyed at his novels not being available in English if his other language was Russian or Swahili?
Julie, Philadelphia, US

No one takes the Nobel Prize in Literature serious anymore. It's a geo-political game for the Swedes. If they really wanted to give the prize to someone who deserve it, it would have been long-time candidate Jaan Kross of Estonia, who managed to survive both Nazi and Soviet oppression. Sadly, after years of being runner-up, Mr Kross passed this year. So the Nobel committee has one more shame to live with by ignoring this amazing writer.
Mel, London



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