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Nobel Goes Global With Literary Prize

This left the celebrating to small publishers such as David Godine.

"It's Yom Kippur, so it's a nice, bittersweet day," said the proprietor of the Boston-based independent David R. Godine Inc., whi ch puts out between 20 and 30 titles a year and which printed 6,000 copies of Le Clézio's "The Prospector" in 1993.

The Washington Post's reviewer called the book "a wonderful one-volume compendium of all the grand myths rooted in the European c olonial experience, combining elements from 'Paul et Virginie,' 'Robinson Crusoe' and 'Indiana Jones.' " As of yesterday morning, ho wever, Godine still had some 500 copies kicking around.

They were gone by mid-afternoon.

"We'll be back-ordered probably a thousand copies by the end of the afternoon," Godine said, and a paperback edition is in the wo rks as well. His company also owns American rights to "Desert," currently unavailable in English, which the Swedish Academy singled out as Le Clézio's breakthrough novel. Godine had someone working on a translation well before the news from Sweden broke.

Among the other winners in the Le Clézio sweepstakes are the University of Nebraska Press (publisher of the novels "Onitsha" and "The Round & Other Cold Hard Facts") and Curbstone Press, a tiny Connecticut nonprofit that put out "Wandering Star" in 2004.

"It's beautifully written and beautifully translated," said Curbstone publisher Judith Ayer Doyle of this novel built around an e ncounter between a Jewish refugee from Europe and a young Palestinian around the time of the founding of Israel.

And how has it sold?

"Not all that well. Translations, unless they're by a very well-known writer, don't sell all that well in this country."

Amid all the kerfuffle created by Engdahl's "too isolated, too insular" remarks, this is a fact that no one seriously disputes.

"America does not participate in translation," said Anne-Solange Noble, the foreign rights director of Le Clézio's French publish er, Gallimard. On the phone from Paris, Noble started counting off the languages into which the author has been translated: "Un, deu x, trois, quatre . . . vingt-et-un, vingt-deux . . . "

She got up to 36, "from A to V, with A being Albanian and V being Vietnamese."

Noble didn't want to be misunderstood. Gallimard proudly publishes Philip Roth, she said, and "nobody says American lite rature is not good or interesting." But by choosing to ignore so much of the rest of the world's output, "Anglo-Americans are not pa rticipating in the dialogue of literature."

Le Clézio published his first novel, "The Interrogation," in 1963. Among his other most notable works, said Warren Motte, a profe ssor of French and comparative literature at the University of Colorado, are "Desert," "Onitsha" and a story collection, "Fever."

The Swedish Academy described "Desert" as containing "magnificent images of a lost culture in the North African desert contrasted with a depiction of Europe seen through the eyes of unwanted immigrants." The translator of "Onitsha," which takes its name from a Nigerian city, has called the novel remarkable for its "almost mythological evocation of local history and beliefs."

Motte called Le Clézio "one of the key figures of contemporary French literature," an innovative yet readable writer who manages to appeal to both "an erudite and a more popular audience."

Life experience led Le Clézio to a concern with ecology and a rebellion against the confines of purely rationalist thought. In pa rticular, he has cited time spent as a young man within an Indian community, the Embera of Panama, as life-changing. "I discovered a way of life that had nothing to do with what I had been able to experience in Europe," he told a French interviewer a few years ago . "Western culture has become too monolithic."

In the same interview, however, he made a point that -- were the Nobel committee to take it seriously -- might yet offer hope to the likes of Pynchon and DeLillo.

"We live in a troubled era in which we are bombarded by a chaos of ideas and images," Le Clézio said. "The role of literature tod ay is perhaps to echo this chaos."

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