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The Nobel Prize in Literature 2008
Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

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Language as Belonging

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio has said that the French language is the only place where he feels a sense of belonging. He is someone who has always lived on the edge, and in-between, and is hard to identify with a single locality. Itinerant from childhood, he has continued to travel, and now divides his time between New Mexico, on the frontier between North and South America, Nice, on the very edge of France, and Mauritius, a small island where the confrontation of land and sea is inescapable. Coming from a line of emigrants and immigrants, his family is dispersed all over the world.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his background, he has always been interested in thresholds. For instance, his novels explore the transformation from childhood into adulthood (Cœur brûlé et autres romances), voyages that result in the confrontation of cultures (Désert), and the points where past, present and future collide (Ourania). "Writing for me is like travelling", says Le Clézio, who shows us that we are all emigrants, that we all face futures that are both liberating and terrifying.

Le Clézio's talent was recognized from the beginning; his first published novel (Le procès-verbal) written when he was 23, received the Renaudot prize. The early novels are highly experimental in style and intellectually challenging. They present a bleak picture of modern western urban existence, as one of alienation, aggression and enslavement to materiality (Les géants). Then, in the late 1970s, Le Clézio's style and thinking underwent a radical change, partly as a result of his experience of living with the Emberas Indians in the Panamanian forest between 1970 and 1974. Le Clézio is an expert on early Amerindian mythology and culture and produced the first ever translation of Indian mythology into a western language in Les prophéties du Chilam Balam. His experience in Panama developed his thinking about the limits of western rationalism and its dangerous devaluation of emotions and spirituality, and also of the natural world. His novels became more focused on story and character as the means to analyze the limits of western culture. More recently, as part of his exploration of the interaction between past, present and future, he has turned to his own family history and made it the subject of his novels.

By Georgia Brown, for Nobelprize.org

 

First published 9 October 2008
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