Interview with the 2008 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, 6 December 2008. The interviewer is Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy.
The 2008 Literature Laureate discusses the importance of languages in his career and the literary world, his non-traditional relationship with the French culture and language (12:03), the crisis that led to a turning point in his writing career (25:25), and why he began to explore his own family history in recent books (41:08).
The 2008 Nobel Laureates met at the Bernadotte Library in Stockholm on 9 December 2008 for the traditional round-table discussion and TV programme ‘Nobel Minds’. The programme was hosted by BBC presenter Sarah Montague. The Laureates discussed, among other things, their own achievements, the worldwide financial crisis, and what research they think is needed most right now.
Telephone interview with Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio immediately following the announcement of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, 9 October 2008. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
[Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio] Yes, Le Clézio speaking.
[Adam Smith] Oh hello, my name is Adam Smith and I’m calling from the Nobel Foundation web site in Stockholm.
[AS] And, would you mind if we spoke just for five minutes on the telephone?
[J-MGLC] No, not at all. I am ready for that.
[AS] Thank you so much. You’re an inhabitant of many countries but we catch you in France now, is that correct?
[J-MGLC] Yes, yes. I am in France presently. Normally I am going to Canada in a few days, but I’m still in France now.
[AS] And given that you were brought up in many countries and you’ve lived around the world, is there anywhere that you consider to be home?
[J-MGLC] Yes, in fact, I would say that Mauritius, which is the place of my ancestors, is really the place I consider my small homeland. So, this would be Mauritius definitely.
[AS] And, you were brought up bilingual, but you always write in French. Is there a particular reason?
[J-MGLC] Well, yes. In fact, when I was a child I grew up speaking French, I mean, in a French public school. So my first contact with literature was in French, and that’s the reason why I write in French.
[AS] And, you started writing as a young child, and are very prolific. You’ve written over 30 books alone. Does writing come very easily? Do you enjoy putting pen to paper?
[J-MGLC] Yes, definitely. This is one of my greatest pleasures in life is to sit at a table, wherever it is. I don’t have any office, I can write everywhere. So, I put a piece of paper on the table and then I travel. Literally, writing for me is like travelling. It’s getting out of myself and living another life; maybe a better life.
[AS] That’s nice. People often say that reading is like travelling, but writing, also, that’s nice.
[J-MGLC] Yes, both go together for me. I enjoy very much being in a foreign country, in a new country, new place. And I enjoy also beginning a new book. It’s like being someone else.
[AS] You write about other places, other cultures, other possibilities a great deal, and in particular you’ve written a book about the Amerindians. What is particularly appealing about their culture?
[J-MGLC] Well, it’s probably because it’s a culture so different from the European culture, and on the other hand it didn’t have the chance of expressing itself. It’s a culture which has been in some ways broken by the modern world, and especially by the conquests from Europe. So I feel there is a strong message here for the Europeans … I am European essentially. So, I feel there is a strong message here for the Europeans to encounter this culture which is so different from the European culture. They have a lot to learn from this culture; the Amerindian cultures.
[AS] You also write about the colonial experience a lot. Do you feel it’s important for modern European culture to examine its past in this way?
[J-MGLC] Yes, because I feel, it’s my feeling that the, Europe, and I would say also the American society are – it owes a lot to the people that submitted during the colonial times. I mean the wealth of Europe comes from sugar, cotton, from the colonies. And from this wealth they began the industrial world. So they really owe a lot to the colonized people. And they have to pay their debts to them.
[AS] The wide range of your writing is unclassifiable, but is there some unifying purpose in why you write?
[J-MGLC] Mainly would be to be true to myself, to express myself in the most accurate way. I feel that the writer is just a kind of witness of what is happening. A writer is not a prophet, is not a philosopher, he’s just someone who is witness to what is around him. And so writing is a way to … it’s the best way to testify, to be a witness.
[AS] And for those who are unfamiliar with your work, would you suggest any particular starting points?
[J-MGLC] Uh, no. I would not dare to do that. I mean reading is a free practice. You have to, you have to be led by not haphazard, but to be led by your own feelings. I think the readers are free to begin by the books where they want to. They don’t have to be led in their, in their reading.
[AS] That’s a very appealing answer, thank you. Ah, last question. The Prize will bring some further notoriety. Is there a particular message you think you might use that notoriety to spread?
[J-MGLC] Well, let me think about that! It’s a … in a way it’s a very intimidating situation, because I’m not familiar … it’s not my habit to give messages, and to express thoughts. I would say, rather, I would prefer to be read, and to, that my writings might inspire some people. I, anyway, there is of course the speech I have to deliver to the Nobel Academy, so maybe I will find some, some messages to express at that time.
[AS] So we will wait for December.
[AS] Okay. Well, we will look forward to seeing you in Stockholm in due course, but thank you very much indeed.
[J-MGLC] Thank you very much indeed.
[AS] And congratulations.
[J-MGLC] Bye bye.
[AS] Bye bye.
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