Who is the real Le Clézio?
By David Tresilian
Jean- Marie Gustave Le Clézio
For some years now the Swedish Academy, the body that awards the Nobel Prize for Literature, one of an original five prizes established under the will of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, has had a policy of choosing unexpected or controversial laureates. The Anglo-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, for example, at the top of bookmakers' lists for years, has thus far been denied the prize, while the late American dramatist Arthur Miller, long tipped as a potential prizewinner, died without ever receiving the honour.
However, the Academy's choice of French writer Jean- Marie Gustave Le Clézio as this year's prizewinner has given rise to more controversy than usual, this time not because of his subject matter, as was the case with the 2004 prizewinner, the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, or his politics, as was the case with the 2001 prizewinner, the Anglo- Caribbean writer V.S. Naipaul, but instead because of his comparative obscurity, at least internationally, and of the Academy's presentation of Le Clézio as a kind of standard- bearer against the dominance of the English-language and against American literature in particular.
According to Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Academy, in widely reported comments made before this year's Nobel laureates were announced last week, American writers are "too isolated, too insular" and "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture" to be considered as candidates for the Nobel Prize.
Yet, while the choice of Le Clézio as this year's laureate may have irritated the Americans it has done nothing to correct the Swedish Academy's own particular form of isolation and insularity. For in an extraordinary parting shot aimed at American writers but having implications far beyond them, Engdahl went on to remark that Europe was still "the centre of the literary world."
The Academy's choice of Le Clézio as this year's laureate was presumably designed to underline this view at the expense not only of American writers but also of any writer originating from outside Europe.
While the Academy in the past two decades has shown some desire to represent authors writing in non-European languages, and a fortiori in languages other than English -- awarding the prize to writers writing in Arabic (Naguib Mahfouz in 1988), Japanese (Kenzaburo Oe in 1994), Chinese (Gao Xingjian in 2000), and Turkish (Orhan Pamuk in 2006), for example -- in general its policies have been securely Eurocentric, with English, French, German and Portuguese writers represented over the past decade at the expense of those writing in non-European languages.
With all this baggage weighing on this year's award, Le Clézio has found himself caught up in a kind of double controversy, however little he may have wished it. First, he has been staged as a sort of anti-hegemonic standard-bearer against American "insularity" in an argument over the relative merits of European and American culture. And second he has been presented as the inheritor and representative of French and European literature in an argument over Europe's place in the world and the alleged superiority of European culture.
Coverage of the award in the French press has underlined such considerations, the French newspaper Le Monde in its front-page editorial on the award reminding its readers that Le Clézio had been described by the Swedish Academy as "the explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilisation." Surely here, the newspaper said, there was a reference to the failures of American capitalism, which had now received its come-uppance in the shape of the present "degrading and ruinous financial torment."
Furthermore, according to French prime minister Francois Fillon in comments made last week, Le Clézio "consecrates French literature" and "refutes with éclat the theory of a so- called decline of French culture." According to French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Le Clézio is "a citizen of the world who represents the international influence of France."
Commentators in the French press have been quick to argue that Le Clézio's award, the first Nobel to be awarded to a French writer since Claude Simon in 1985, gives the lie to a notorious story that appeared in the American news magazine Time late last year which announced the "death of French culture" and cited the invisibility of French artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers on the international cultural scene and the fading profile of French thinkers as evidence. No new figures have emerged to replace the French ma"tres à penser of the 1960s and 70s, for example, among them Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Lacan and Althusser, who in their different ways gave France the reputation of being the centre of cutting-edge thought.
However, Le Clézio, now 68 years old and for many years not resident in France, appears to be a modest and retiring sort of person, if last week's press conference at his Paris publisher Gallimard was anything to go by, and not the kind of author interested in fighting cultural battles. Obscure internationally, not very well-known even in his native France, he won a literary prize for his first novel Procès-verbal (The Interrogation), published in 1963 at the height of the nouveau roman, but has subsequently lived abroad and has removed himself from the hothouse environment of contemporary French literature.
Yet, it is not just that Le Clézio's work does not seem to conform particularly well to the constructions that have been placed upon it, whether as representing a special kind of European sensibility or as refuting allegations of the decline of French culture. More problematic still is the character of his work as a whole, which, far from combating the dominance of a single "reigning civilisation" in fact may look altogether more familiar and merely update the traditional European view of the extra-European world as the site of authentic values that have been lost by modern industrial or post-industrial civilisation.
Such a view is part and parcel of an "exoticising" way of seeing, familiar from 19th-century European painters like Paul Gauguin or 20th-century novelists like D.H. Lawrence. Under the tendentious headline "a body of work poorly understood in the United States," Le Monde nevertheless quoted various US-based critics for whom this is an important consideration.
Representative of French and European literature, voice of cultural diversity against American insularity, champion of French and European values against the excesses of American capitalism, standard-bearer against the dominance of the English language and American mass culture, or last-gasp representative of an exoticising way of seeing the world outside Europe?
Any one of these would be a heavy symbolic burden to bear, and taken as a whole they are mutually contradictory. In the wake of the award of his Nobel Prize perhaps the real Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio will now come forward.