Award ceremony speech



Presentation Speech by Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Member of its Nobel Committee, 10 December 2008.

Professor Horace Engdahl delivering the Presentation Speech.
Professor Horace Engdahl delivering the Presentation Speech for the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature at the Stockholm Concert Hall.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2008
Photo: Hans Mehlin

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Of what use are characters to a literary work? Roland Barthes maintained that the most antiquated of all literary conventions was the proper name – the Peter, Paul, and Anna who never existed but whom we are expected to take seriously and feel concerned about when we read novels. His view was in accordance with le nouveau roman, the new French novel, which at the time, forty years ago, was doing away with psychologically shaped characters, turning them into angles of vision, camera lenses. 

In such a climate, Jean-Marie Le Clézio set out on his literary path. He writes in his second book, La fièvre (1965; Fever, 1966): “Poems, short stories and novels are antiquities that no longer fool anyone or just about. […] All that is left is the writing, writing that gropes its way along with words that searches and describes, meticulously and in depth that clings on to and ruthlessly works over reality.” The young Le Clézio was not alone in wanting to shake off the genres. But while his colleagues stressed doubt in the apprehensibility of reality, he chose to believe in the alliance of language with matter and the body.

His first novel, Le procès-verbal (The Interrogation), which made him a celebrity at the age of twenty-three, mixes confessions, parodies, diary fragments, found texts, newspaper items, word play, and dialogues from a mental hospital. In its feverish prose speaks a generation that has lost its faith in hierarchies. Everything that language captures seems equally valuable and equally instable. Le Clézio’s early books are a verbal “big bang” with figures that appear and disappear, sudden bursts of light, vast silences, glowing matter, a universe in the making that continually dissolves its forms.

He could have stayed with prose poetry and crisis writing, heir of Lautréamont and Michaux and Stig Dagerman, if it had not been for his travels. A several year long stay in Central America brought him into contact with Indian culture, and this changed the conditions of his literary production. He discovered the denied knowledge that did not suit modernity and that progress had put in the shadows. He discovered that he was actually an Indian, but a poor one. In time, he would find a connection between this experience and his own family’s history, his ancestors’ migration to Mauritius, the struggle and the freedom at the ocean’s edge. That cleared the way for masterpieces such as Révolutions and L’Africain.

This year’s Laureate in Literature belongs to the tradition of the critique of civilisation, which on French ground can be traced back to Chateaubriand, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Diderot, and yes, Montaigne. In the nineteen hundreds, it was represented with furious enthusiasm by Artaud, who Le Clézio follows in his relations with the old Mexican gods.

His books give a place of honour to eccentrics who have preserved the ties with their origin: gypsies, fishermen, ox drivers, nomads. He prefers groups in constant motion, those who live in our societies without belonging to them, and saves them from banality. Few authors have so convincingly described how reluctantly languages and cultures die. This is one of our time’s unexpected experiences, which inspires hope and anguish in equal measure. The imprint of history does not fade. We do not become more like one another. The universally human is, for Le Clézio, the opposite of the international service type without a past encouraged in the Western capitals.

In the novel Désert (1980), which marked a new turn in his writing, the outsider position is represented by a Bedouin girl, who has left North Africa to look for work in France. She is an image of humanity before the Fall that came with the use of money. Unlearned, she reads the language of things with unerring certainty. An inborn remote gaze that defies time and place puts her in contact with her people’s great past. Europe is seen in this novel through the eyes of the unwanted immigrants and appears as a realm of death.

The open form of this book has become typical for its author, a form that juxtaposes separate places, times, and discourses without mediation. In his hands, the novel merges with the travel story, the analytical essay, the prose of recollection, and witness literature. This alloy is strong enough to carry a consciousness that is open to global reality and does not merely pretend to be so in order to dominate it. Le Clézio gives us a French that has stepped down from the pedestal of purism and that is permeated by the consciousness of other languages.

And the proper names, the characters? In a very personal essay on cinema published just this year, Le Clézio describes how Jean Vigo expanded the language of film by shifting the focus from individuals to that which they see and experience. In the same way, fictive figures seem to find mercy in Le Clézio’s writing when they appear, not so that we can immerse ourselves in their petty plots, but rather so that we can see with their eyes.

Le Clézio’s imagination sustains itself in the unexplored regions where fear and ecstasy arise, inseparable from one another. It may seem surprising to call him a hopeful author, given the significant strain of colonial devastation, bourgeois oppressiveness, and social injustice in his themes. Still, he deserves such a designation. The earth’s lustre, the sun, the sea, and the vast expanses, the irrepressible feeling of freedom that comes with a new departure – these are the forces that outweigh the sorrow about the path that our civilisation has taken.

Most honoured Laureate, dear Jean-Marie Le Clézio!
Your work is a story of migration; you are yourself a nomad of the world. You have in writing found a gateway to adventure, not as escapism, but as a hunger for the unknown. You have, after a long era in which the highest forms of expression seemed reserved for dystopian experience, restored to literature its power to celebrate the world. I would like to express the warm congratulations of the Swedish Academy as I now ask you to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature from the hand of His Majesty the King.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2008

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