Let's not kid ourselves into thinking literary prizes are meaningful. They are a real pain in the ass. You will have seen the film The SWIMMING POOL and remember when the Charlotte Rampling character complains about not getting any literary prizes her editor consoles her with the sentence, Literary prizes are like hemorrhoids, eventually ever asshole gets one.
SO, the Nobel and J.M.G. LeClezio. A Canadian correspondent wrote complaining of Swedish racism in that they failed to give the Nobel Prize a second time to Toni Morrison for her having to live in such a hostile environment as the United States…
Of course we all know that the three saddest words in the English language (according to Gore Vidal) Joyce Carol Oates grew a little sadder and more Chinese food was consumed as Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill once told me that when she was invited to Princeton she was surprised that the chief subject of conversation there was about Chinese versus Indian take out…
Of course we all know that Princeton is a dumping ground for second rate Black intellectuals that even Harvard could no longer stomach…
One should be happy he got the prize if only in the hope his earlier books will be re-printed in the US.
Let us remind ourselves that the Nobel did get it right when it gave the prize, to Claude Simon and Camilo Jose Cela and again they didn’t give it to that hick P. Roth.
I took down from my shelves that pile of LeClezio books. He has been well published in the United States.
In 1970 I must have written to LeClezio as I have a little note from him in which he carefully mimics the typewriter in his block lettering: The mind is not too well but the hand continues to write.
I had written to him after reading TERRA AMATA which was the fourth of his books to be published in the US by the long gone Atheneum…
I had heard of him on a pig farm in West Branch Iowa from Elliott Anderson who had been reading FEVER, a collection of Le Clezio's short stories.
Those early seven books: FEVER, THE INTEROGATION, THE FLOOD, TERRA AMATA, BOOK OF FLIGHTS, WAR, THE GIANTS… catalogue a vision of disintegration of the known world… the desperate isolation of the individual and I probably had written to LeClezio suggesting that Max Stirner so long ago had talked about the creative nothingness out of which everything is possible…
Again when I go to TERRA AMATA, THE FLOOD… I am midst that collapse and LeClezio's ability to find a language and form for it: "He turned into writing; it turned into crossing-out." (TERRA AMATA) or "All that remains now is writing, writing by itself, groping its way with words, searching and describing, meticulously in depth, hanging on hammering out reality, rejecting compromise." FEVER (1965)
Of course all young people should be so imbued… and not seek out as today the tired best sellers and mimicking them as seems the case for 99% of what is published in the US today.
And the great ambition: "You must abandon the field of solitary contemplation, the false protection of forgetfulness; you have to sally forth recklessly into the open, determined to explore the outside world in all its aspects, driven on by a mad desire to invade every space and drain every attraction to the dregs. No longer, either, by analytical reason, but by a willing acceptance of the illogical in your reactions to every room and person, each tree, each speck of dust… (THE FLOOD).
I have mis-placed THE BOOK OF FLIGHTS but with WAR and THE GIANTS LeClezio gives himself over totally to the visionary in the hope of staying alive: "One day, round noon, he looks round him, in the big city where he lives; he stops moving, and looks round him. He stops flapping the twin cushions of his speaking lips, he stops blinking his eyes at the sight of set pieces, women, cars, trains, films, pages of essay-poem-novels and looks round him. In a single stroke the world stops moving. (THE GIANTS)
THE GIANTS appeared in 1975 and for almost twenty years LeClezio did not exist in the US. I tried and failed to get Dalkey Archive to reprint the early books.
In France, of course LeClezio continued to publish and I picked up VERS LES ICEBERGS in the hope of seeing that one day into English or… and I waited.
In 1993, finally THE PROSPECTOR and THE MEXICAN DREAM appeared. Larry Kart (some day I will write about him--- one of the great editors of our time) then editor of the book section of the Chicago Tribune allowed me to review them… by then LeClezio was part of the usual forgetfulness.
In my review I wrote that THE PROSPECTOR was a romance… and while it did not continue in the vein that I had treasured in those earlier novels… of course in 20 years a writer… I disguised my disappointment and allowed that he had written a very good novel, one that as they say, kept me reading… I imagine nothing much happened for Godine, the publisher of this novel… I had found some words they could use as a blurb but there would be no paper version, I was sure of that. The book of essays THE MEXICAN DREAM was a hodgepodge and sadly LeClezio had given himself over to a too easy self-hatred of being a white European writer.
When I read again today in THE MEXICAN DREAM… I see something I had missed before… and which I have only recently become aware in regard in my case the state of Arizona and the native peoples living there: I know nothing. I know nothing.
LeClezio was trying to share that idea with his readers and only if he had been able to free himself from his ordinary European self-hatred so as to truly give words to what he mentions was, the greatest disaster in human history: the destruction of the various Indian civilizations in the Americas… if only it was possible to do this but not from now comfortable and well rewarded self-hatred…
Since then the novel ONITSHA, and a book of stories THE ROUND AND OTHER COLD HARD FACTS have appeared from Nebraska…and seemed too conventional for me… in 2004 Curbstone published WANDERING STAR and not for a moment was I interested in LeClezio's take on the Palestinian/Israeli situation…the novel might have been a parody for all I know and LeClezio was creating a mock entertainment.. Not for a moment did I believe that he could inhabit the experience of an Israeli or Palestinian woman… not for a moment was I unaware of the dreadful fall into the imperialism of LeClezio's imagination and a politically correct and calculated arrogance that had displaced his heroic stuttering yet articulate hesitation that had shaped those early book…but it is for these later books that he was being honored so possibly the comment in THE SWIMMING POOL is not too far off…
Maybe in real old age LeClezio will return to the consoling truth of the last lines of TERRA AMATA: How can one bear witness? I am only an actor who doesn’t know the play he's acting in. What I've done I've done by chance, like a gnat in a strong wind. I've said first one thing, then another. I've written pins, tobacco, passions, suffer, nylon, seed. You've read zip-fastener, top, beauty, woman, cigarette, cloud. And accurate chance is its own individual path. But I've said enough. Now it's your turn."
Sadly, I doubt it.
Of course Princeton is a wonderful place…according to the late George Garrett, Princeton used to recruit Black students and allow them to go through the first two years with no grades… just passed them along and then in the final two they began to be graded and flunked out. Princeton thus had to it both ways: good liberal admission policies and then ruthless preserving of the degree….now of course the more typical graduate of Princeton is Michelle Obama--- discovering the nasty secret racism of Princeton which allowed her to go there and being half way alert discovering she was probably just not as smart as the non-Black students she found herself among… and of course she was aware of how the good liberal professors treat the hired help. No wonder many Black people voted for George Wallace…