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.

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."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company