Le Clezio, 68, is the first French writer to win the prestigious award since Chinese-born Frenchman Gao Xingjian was honored in 2000.
The decision was in line with the Swedish Academy’s recent picks of European authors. Last year’s prize went to Doris Lessing of Britain.
The academy called Le Clezio an “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.” Academy Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl said he was a writer of great diversity. “He has gone through many different phases of his development as a writer and has come to include other civilizations, other modes of living than the Western, in his writing,” Engdahl said. Engdahl said Le Clezio won the prize “because he is a great prose writer and a narrator.”
Asked how he thought the prize would be received in the United States, given Engdahl’s recent controversial comments about American literature, he said he had no idea. “I’m not aware that there are today any anti-French sentiments in the US. And apart from that, Le Clezio, is a cosmopolitan. He lives part of the year in New Mexico,» Engdahl said. “He’s not a particularly French writer if you look at him from a strictly cultural point of view. So I don’t think this choice will give rise to any anti-French sentiments. I would be very sad if that was the case.”
Since Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe won the award in 1994, the selections have had a distinctly European flavor. Nine of the subsequent laureates were Europeans, including last year’s winner, Doris Lessing of Britain. Of the other four, one was from Turkey and the others from South Africa, China and Trinidad. All had strong ties to Europe. The last US writer to win the prize was Toni Morrison in 1993.
Le Clezio made his breakthrough as a novelist with “Desert,” in 1980, a work the academy said “contains magnificent images of a lost culture in the North African desert contrasted with a depiction of Europe seen through the eyes of unwanted immigrants.” Le Clezio also won a prize from the French Academy for the work.
The Swedish Academy said Le Clezio from early on “stood out as an ecologically engaged author, an orientation that is accentuated with the novels ‘Terra Amata,’ ‘The Book of Flights,’ ‘War’ and ‘The Giants.’”
Le Clezio was born in Nice in 1940 and at eight the family moved to Nigeria, where his father had been a doctor during World War II. They returned to France in 1950. His most recent works include 2007’s “Ballaciner,” a work the academy called a “deeply personal essay about the history of the art of film and the importance of film” in his life. His books have also included several tales for children, including 1980’s “Lullaby” and “Balaabilou” in 1985.
In addition to the 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) check, Le Clezio will also receive a gold medal and be invited to give a lecture at the academy’s headquarters in Stockholm’s Old Town. The Nobel Prize in literature is handed out in Stockholm on Dec. 10 -- the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896 -- along with the awards in medicine, chemistry, physics and economics. The Nobel Peace Prize is presented in Oslo, Norway.
Excerpts from the Nobel literature prize citation
Excerpts from the Swedish Academy’s citation awarding the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature to French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio:
* The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2008 is awarded to the French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio "author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization."
* Even early on, Le Clezio stood out as an ecologically engaged author, an orientation that is accentuated with the novels “Terra amata” (1967; Terra Amata, 1969), “Le livre des fuites” (1969; The Book of Flights, 1971), “La guerre” (1970; War, 1973) and “Les geants” (1973; The Giants, 1975). His definitive breakthrough as a novelist came with “Desert” (1980), for which he received a prize from the French Academy. This work contains magnificent images of a lost culture in the North African desert, contrasted with a depiction of Europe seen through the eyes of unwanted immigrants. The main character, the Algerian guest worker Lalla, is a utopian antithesis to the ugliness and brutality of European society.
* “L’Africain,” the story of the author’s father, is at once a reconstruction, a vindication, and the recollection of a boy who lived in the shadow of a stranger he was obliged to love. He remembers through the landscape: Africa tells him who he was when, at the age of eight, he experienced the family’s reunion after the separation during the war years. Among Le Clezio’s most recent works are “Ballaciner” (2007), a deeply personal essay about the history of the art of film and the importance of film in the author’s life, from the hand-turned projectors of his childhood, the cult of cineaste trends in his teens, to his adult forays into the art of film as developed in unfamiliar parts of the world. A new work, “Ritournelle de la faim,” has just been published.
Works of Le Clezio
A list of works in English, translated from French, by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature:
* “The Interrogation” (1964) “Fever” (1966)
* “The Flood” (1967) “Terra Amata” (1969)
* “The Book of Flights: An Adventure Story” (1971) “War” (1973) “The Giants” (1975)
* “The Mexican Dream, or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations” (1993)
* “The Prospector” (1993) “Onitsha” (1997)
* “The Round & Other Cold Hard Facts” (2002)
* “Wandering Star: A Novel” (2004)