Nobel Goes Global With Literary Prize

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 10, 2008; 12:00 AM

This year's tip for seekers after the Nobel Prize in Literature: Being "insular" is out.

Much better to be like the globe-straddling novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, who was named yesterday by the Swedish Academy as the winner of its 2008 award. Le Clézio is a Frenchman who had family roots on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, who spent time in Africa as a child and in Latin America as an adult, and who now lives in New Mexico for part of each year.

The academy praised Le Clézio, 68, as "an author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization." He has published more than 30 novels, essays, story collections and translations.

The award came wrapped in a fog of literary pettiness and backbiting brewed up last month by Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Nobel Committee for Literature, who told the Associated Press that American literature is "too isolated, too insular," Americ an publishers "don't translate enough," and American writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture."

Better luck next year, John Updike. Maybe another time, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo. The last American to win the li terature prize was Toni Morrison in 1993, and the Nobel committee appeared to be signaling that this hiatus was no accident.

In answering questions after the Nobel announcement, Engdahl seemed at pains to underline Le Clézio's non-insularity.

"Great writers today are more and more difficult to locate in terms of their nationality," he said. "They often work in exile . . . and they find stimulation from displacing themselves from their culture of origin to other cultures."

Engdahl described Le Clézio as "a great writer of variety" who has "come to include other civilizations, other modes of thought, other modes of living than the Western in his writing."

At a news conference yesterday afternoon in Paris, Le Clézio, too, emphasized his diverse background. "I started in France, but m y father was a British citizen, born in Mauritius," he said. "So I see myself as a mix, like many people currently in Europe."

As for the award itself, he pronounced himself "very touched and very emotional." On first hearing the news, he found himself fil led with "some kind of incredulity, and then some kind of awe, and then some kind of joy and mirth."

The award, which comes with a check for $1.4 million, will be presented to Le Clézio in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

There was little joy among New York publishers at this year's Nobel news. With recent winners such as Britain's Doris Lessing and Turkey's Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel laureates' American publishers could count on cleaning up with increased sales of backlist titles. But no major publisher in this country since Atheneum, more than 30 years ago, has bothered with translations of Le Clézio's work.

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