I had not heard of Le Clézio, and as a bookish person who also happens to be married to a French guy, I suppose I should be ashamed of that, and take it as a sign of the ignorance in which I’m currently marinating along with my countrymen. Nah.
Besides living part time in Albuquerque, Le Clézio has another connection to our region: the University of Nebraska Press, one of my very favorite small presses, published English translations of two of his books. The press specializes in the literature of the American West, baseball, and French stuff, so you can see why I am so fond of it.
Jean-Marie Le Clézio was born April 13th, 1940 in Nice, from a Breton family that had migrated to Maurice Island in the 18th century. His dad was an African bush doctor, British citizen. Both mother and dad had Breton roots and had in fact the same family name. He is bilingual french-english citizen of France but also of Mauritius.
« I belong to this nation » This is how Jean-Marie Le Clézio had declared candidly his guts ties to Brittany, while interviewed at the Saint-Malo Étonnants Voyageurs Festival in 2002. « A clear statement for an universalistic writer and spokesperson for multicultural societies and negated people » wrote Hubert Chémereau , a Breton militant who had proposed Le Clézio for the Collier de l'Hermine 2009 brand. (A Breton chivalry order and one of the oldest in Europe).
"He's a gentle writer," says his biographer, Jennifer Waelti-Walters. "He never became one of those trendy French writers that the French all read, but [he was] always present in the literary mileau."
[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.
I am delighted—but not at all surprised!—that Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. When I read Le rêve mexicain—The Mexican Dream—for the first time, I was transported by Le Clézio’s language and message. The author imagined how the thought of early Indian civilizations might have evolved if not for the interruption of European conquest. And how our own civilization might have been different had we had the continued input of such advanced, now vanished, peoples. Those questions, and Le Clézio’s recounting of the Conquest in his beautiful, lyrical prose, truly transformed my view of Western civilization. It is an honor to have translated the book and to have worked with the author, a most deserving Nobel Prize winner.
There was little joy among New York publishers at this year's Nobel news. With recent winners such as Britain's Doris Lessing and Turkey's Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel laureates' American publishers could count on cleaning up with increased sales of backlist titles. But no major publisher in this country since Atheneum, more than 30 years ago, has bothered with translations of Le Clézio's work.
This left the celebrating to small publishers such as David Godine.
"It's Yom Kippur, so it's a nice, bittersweet day," said the proprietor of the Boston-based independent David R. Godine Inc., which puts out between 20 and 30 titles a year and which printed 6,000 copies of Le Clézio's "The Prospector" in 1993.
The Washington Post's reviewer called the book "a wonderful one-volume compendium of all the grand myths rooted in the European c olonial experience, combining elements from 'Paul et Virginie,' 'Robinson Crusoe' and 'Indiana Jones.' " As of yesterday morning, ho wever, Godine still had some 500 copies kicking around.
They were gone by mid-afternoon.
"We'll be back-ordered probably a thousand copies by the end of the afternoon," Godine said, and a paperback edition is in the wo rks as well. His company also owns American rights to "Desert," currently unavailable in English, which the Swedish Academy singled out as Le Clézio's breakthrough novel. Godine had someone working on a translation well before the news from Sweden broke.
Among the other winners in the Le Clézio sweepstakes are the University of Nebraska Press (publisher of the novels "Onitsha" and "The Round & Other Cold Hard Facts") and Curbstone Press, a tiny Connecticut nonprofit that put out "Wandering Star" in 2004.
"It's beautifully written and beautifully translated," said Curbstone publisher Judith Ayer Doyle of this novel built around an e ncounter between a Jewish refugee from Europe and a young Palestinian around the time of the founding of Israel.
And how has it sold?
"Not all that well. Translations, unless they're by a very well-known writer, don't sell all that well in this country."
Amid all the kerfuffle created by Engdahl's "too isolated, too insular" remarks, this is a fact that no one seriously disputes.
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