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Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio

French Author Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

October 09, 2008 02:45 PM
by Shannon Firth
Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio won the Nobel Prize in literature today, amid controversy incited by statements from a Swedish Academy secretary earlier this week.

Academy Secretary Disparages American Literature

Not surprisingly, French children’s author and essayist, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, 68, was reading a book when he received the phone call that he’d won the Nobel Prize in literature, according to The Huffington Post. The decision, announced by the Swedish Academy today, came as a partial surprise, as Le Clezio was not among the favored candidates. The announcement also cames after a secretary of the Swedish Academy disparaged American writers, according to the New York Times.

Le Clezio first gained prominence with his novel “Desert.” Published in 1980 and set in the early 20th century, the story follows Lalla, a member of a nomadic Tuareg tribe living in the Sahara Desert as she struggles with the French efforts to colonize the region. His most recent essay, “Ballaciner,” explores a new realm: film’s history and its impact on the author’s life. The Swedish Academy has praised Le Clezio, saying, “He was a conjurer who tried to lift words above the degenerate state of everyday speech and to restore to them the power to invoke an essential reality.”

The controversy surrounding the award started earlier this week when Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, told the Associated Press, “Europe is still the center of the literary world” and that American authors are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture. The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” In a later interview with U.K. paper The Guardian, Engdahl appeared to backpedal, maintaining that an author’s nationality would not affect the academy’s decision.

Novelist Richard Russo, in response to Engdahl’s statement, told NPR, “This idea of suggesting that literature is in a physical place—that doesn’t make sense to me at all.”

But novelist Junot Diaz, who was awarded this year's Pulitzer Prize for Literature, put a different spin on the controversy, according to NPR. “If this encourages the average American to read one more book in translation—if only to spite the kind of sneering Eurocentric elitism of this one individual—that’s not a bad thing.”

Background: Betting on a Nobel winner

Each year bettors cast their predictions for Nobel Prize winners, many through the British Agency Ladbrokes. On Wednesday, Web India wrote, “If the latest rates are any indication, Italian scholar, translator and writer Claudio Magris is the top contender with only three odds against one (3:1), followed by Adonis, pen name for Syrian poet and essayist Ali Ahmad Said Asbar (4:1).” Prominent American authors, Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth were both given 7:1 odds.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, another betting agency forecast Israeli author Amos Oz as the winner. Adonis was again predicted to be the second-best contender. 

Svante Weyler, a Swedish publisher who has tried to understand the selection strategy of the Swedish Academy, told Reuters, “The speculation beforehand has become wilder each year because the academy has surprised us.” The announcement that Doris Lessing, a British writer, won last year is an example. This year, Weyler had predicted that the author might be a poet since it’s been a novelist for the past 11 years.

Opinion & Analysis: Reactions to Horace Engdahl’s statement

In the International Herald Tribune, American Charles McGrath wrote, “[A]ny American foolhardy enough to bet on this year’s prize … would be well advised to put his money on a writer whom nobody in the United States has ever heard of and who is out of print there or, ideally, has never been published at all.” McGrath later admitted that Americans might be partially to blame for Engdahl’s reactionary comments, because they don’t read American Nobel Prize candidates as much as they have in the past. They are also guilty of distributing their “poor mass-culture taste” to other countries, he says. McGrath added, “[P]robably from his [Engdahl’s] point of view, the more we complain about the Nobel Prize, the more we prove his point.”

Some thought academy officials aren’t necessarily spot-on in their choices. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, told Slate: “You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures.” Slate also explores and censures the decision-making process of the Swedish Academy over the past several decades, without holding back any rancor.

Reference: Nobel Prize winners


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