icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


World Voices Festival # 1: Le Clėzio

The Pen World Voices Festival began last Friday night at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan with Jean-Marie Gustave Clėzio, the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Le Clėzio had agreed to appear after the schedule was printed and announcement of the bonus evening—to great excitement—went out electronically just days before the event. Nonetheless, the house was full.

I worked with other Pen volunteers at the ticket table where I exercised patience as well as my rusty French. The French Consulate was well represented as well as French media and linguistic purists from the Alliance Française. One diplomat said he had never read Le Clėzio which I thought strange since the laureate’s first book was published in France in 1963. I confessed I had never read his work either but for an American such an oversight, even ignorance, would not be unusual; so few books are translated into English and most of Le Clezio’s oeuvre can still only be found in every language but English. I had not noticed this fascinating man before and was embarrassed when he received the Nobel. Who was he? Now that Le Clėzio had won the prize, I was certain more of his work would be translated and planned to download as many of his books as possible onto my Kindle2 as soon as I got home. But when I went into the Kindle Store, I was disappointed that none of his translated books were available. (There’s a box on the Amazon book sites where one can ask the publisher to release the books for scan. I am clicking on it often these days.) Horace Engdahl, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, fears that translations into English are not seen as necessary in a dominant Anglo-Saxon market driven culture where thousands of English-language books are published every year. I am not satisfied with this explanation of American literary isolationism. We do not even hear about books from Canada, our nearest neighbor to the north. As Kindle2 readers such as myself are voracious, I urge Le Clézio’s publishers to make his books available pronto pronto. Meanwhile, I have ordered two paperbacks. Alas.

But to continue with the story of the evening: The diplomat grabbed his ticket, straightened his pink tie, and set off into the auditorium. He was petulant and had obviously arrived with a grievance. But what was it? I took a swig of my water bottle and vowed to expand my French vocabulary and get back to my French workbook. Then the line thinned, the rush was over, and all the volunteers were seated in neighborly proximity to other writers, avid readers, author autograph hounds—who arrived with bags of Le Clėzio’s books to sign—as the evening began.

Adam Gopnik, the New Yorker writer, had agreed to conduct the interview, the perfect choice. He is a perspicacious interviewer who has lived in France and speaks and writes French fluently. Le Clėzio grew up in Nice and the island of Mauritius (formerly a French colony, conquered by the British in 1810) speaking French and English. The Creole culture has also influenced his life and his work. In the late 1970’s, so disgruntled and bored was he by the autobiographical content of his early writing, that he went to live in a forest in Panama for three years with a group of Amerindian Indians where he absorbed ancient myths and became nearly fluent in their spoken language. He didn’t write at all during this time but when he surfaced from his self-imposed exile, he had decided to write about other people and other cultures. Eventually, he went to live in Mexico where he learned Spanish. He has also lived in Nigeria and the United States where he has taught at the University of New Mexico for the past ten years.

It became clear, almost at once, why the chauvinistic French diplomat was so upset. Le Clėzio is a transnational writer who challenges the concepts of sovereignty, borders, French and English linguistic purity, and colonialism. He writes in French sitting in a room in America where, he told Adam Gopnik, he feels at much at home as he does in Mauritius, Nice, Paris and Mexico. Though he is “domiciled,” in the French literary tradition and his favorite writers in English are the “New York Jewish” writers such as Bellow and Malamud, he is accustomed to shifting languages and making journeys, both literal and figurative.

“And now, in this era following decolonization, literature has become a way for the men and women in our time to express their identity, to claim their right to speak, and to be heard in all their diversity. Without their voices, their call, we would live in a world of silence,” the Nobel laureate said in his lecture to the Academy on December 7, 2008.

I look forward to reading his work and to reporting on it here. In the meantime, please enjoy an interview with M. Le Clézio at this site: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2008/clezio-interview.html

Be the first to comment