Monday, December 15, 2008

French writer wins 2008 Nobel in literature

The New Yorker magazine recently published a short story by J.M.G. Le Clézio, who won this year's Nobel Prize for literature. I finished reading the story yesterday (it was in the Oct. 27 issue). It was delightful. Unfortunately, you can't read it for free.

Here's some background.

Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, little known to American audiences before being named the winner of the literature prize, is getting another introduction to U.S. readers: His work is appearing for the first time in The New Yorker.

"We thought lots of people would be very interested to see what his work was like," said New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, whose translation of the short story "The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea" will appear on newsstands Monday. "We also wanted to move fast and publish it while people still remember his name."

Le Clezio, 68, was praised by the Swedish Academy for his "poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy" in such works as "Terra Amata," "The Book of Flights" and "Desert." Although he is ranked among the greatest living French writers, even leading American critics - including Treisman and New Yorker editor David Remnick - acknowledged they had not read his work.

A week before the award was announced, Academy Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl told The Associated Press that the United States was too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world; Remnick was among those who objected.

Originally published in "Mondo et Autre Histoires" ("Mondo and Other Stories"), a 1978 collection, "The Boy" tells of a young loner and boarding school student named Daniel whose passion for the sea leads to his mysterious disappearance and raises him to mythical heights among those who knew him - and among the many who didn't.

"We talked about the usual school things," Le Clezio writes, "our math problems, our Latin translations, but always we were thinking of him, as if he really were a kind of Sinbad, still making his way around the world."

Treisman said that after the Nobel was announced, on Oct. 9, she contacted Le Clezio's publisher, Gallimard, who gave permission for The New Yorker to publish work from "Mondo." Treisman said she chose "The Boy" for its language and narrative and imaginative power.

Asked why she had never read Le Clezio, even though she was fluent in French, Treisman laughed and responded: "I do have an awful lot to read. I try to keep up with what's happening and I'm aware of quite a few writers in France right now, but I had no particular reason to read his work before this (the Nobel).

"So this was a big prod from the Nobel Prize committee."

Le Clézio lives in New Mexico part of the year. He spent much of his childhood on the island of Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa, where the now-extinct dodo bird lived.

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