The French kiss and the American miss

You wouldn’t know Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio even if a whole bottle of Eau de whatever was emptied in your nose and glasses of Chardonnay singed your stomach.

Oui, oui, je joins le troupeau. Le monsieur has won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year.

The citation lauds him as the “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.”

Huh? Are not all departures new, unless you wish to reclaim the old in a contemporary setting? Isn’t all ecstasy sensual in that it appeals to the senses? I can understand humanity beyond, but what does humanity “below the reigning civilization” mean?

The good thing about such awards is that the author’s works get translated and become accessible. I do like what has been said about Désert, “the story of a young nomad woman from the Sahara and her clashes with modern European civilization”.

One of his works has been compared with Albert Camus. The French, and we might include Sartre, Andre Gide, Jean Genet, Guy de Maupassant, Marcel Proust, and Beckett (who also wrote in the language), have had a history of standing at the edge of existentialism. The writers were essentially exploring the idea of rebellion. France had been the hub of literary angst that invited outsiders, whereas the insiders were seeking to metaphorically escape.

Therefore, there is a bit of irony that the ruling class has often tried to co-opt them.

The NYT report states:

In a reminder that politics and culture are closely intertwined in France, the prime minister, François Fillon, said in a statement that the award “consecrates French literature” and “refutes with éclat the theory of a so-called decline of French culture.”

Consecrating anything spells its death, or rather celebrates it. And is culture relegated to literature? Literature is the product of culture; it isn’t the creator. As I have said before, it is a recorder. Culture could be cuisine. It could be a way of living.

Mr. Le Clézio once described himself in an interview as “a poor Rousseauist who hasn’t really figured it out.”

Just for that he stands tall. The moment you have figured it out and the questions stop, you will never find answers. And the Nobel Prize winner thinks so too when he says, “The novelist, he’s not a philosopher, not a technician of spoken language. He’s someone who writes, above all, and through the novel asks questions.”

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A week before the announcement, the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary Horace Engdahl rubbished the Americans:

“Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world... not the United States.”

Europe has always been seen a culture snob, and its literature is no exception. Yet, I do not see the prudence of hemming in all of European literature under one roof. What would a German have in common with the English, or the French with the Spanish? Is ancient Greek literature to be held in reverence forever?

My knowledge of contemporary American literature is limited, but would the accusation that US writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” and therefore dragging down the quality of their work hold true?

Is sensitivity and intimacy with one’s environment not important enough to be able to critique the same mass culture? If the allegation serves to convey that American writers tend to fall prey to mass trends, then that is indeed the case with a limited number of people anywhere in the world.

Pop culture is a legitimate area of study, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Wasn’t consumerism the central theme of Death of a Salesman?

“The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”

Here I have to admit that I find US political policy and the great masses to be insular; there is an element of not being quite aware of what happens outside the super bowl of American life. However, artistes have tried to break the barrier.

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, provided a response:

“And if he (Engdahl) looked harder at the American scene that he dwells on, he would see the vitality in the generation of Roth, Updike, and DeLillo, as well as in many younger writers, some of them sons and daughters of immigrants writing in their adopted English. None of these poor souls, old or young, seem ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola.”

Spirited as the rejoinder was, it did not examine that Coke is in fact a great leveller and hardly cause of the insulation. The cola has crossed the big divide and is chicken soup for many a writer dead-beat on a metaphor for ‘uncivilisation’.

Tonight, I shall shun the fizz as a mark of respect and drink to mine own eyes.


  1. I remember your post regarding “Where were you.” Same strange American thought. Check this article by “David L. Ulin” - Staff Writer of Los Angeles Times:


    “Made in America Stamp” for Nobel Prize. :)

  2. But we must not forget some truly marvelous American literature.

    And we anyway don;t care who wins the Physics or Economics Prize. Why do poor writers have to bear the brunt?


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