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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

J.M.G. Le Clézio (1940-)


One of the most translated modern French authors, whose first novel appeared when he was only 23 years old. Due to his early experimentalist approach to novel, J.M.G. Le Clézio is counted among the avant-garde writers, but actually his work is difficult to pin down. Le Clézio's themes are cross-cultural. He moves freely, without restriction, from one continent to another, fusing ideas and images from different kinds of literature and culture. Le Clézio was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008.

"They were the men and the women of the sand, of the wind, of the light, of the night. They had appeared as if in a dream at the top of a dune, as if they were born of the cloudless sky and carried the harshness of space in their limbs. They bore with them hunger, the thirst of bleeding lips, the flintlike silence of the glinting sun, the cold nights, the glow of the Milky Way, the moon; accompanying with them were their huge shadows at sunset, the waves of virgin sand over which their splayed feet trod, the inaccesible horizon." (Desert by J.M.G. Le Clézio, 2009, translated from the French by C. Dicson; originally published in French in 1980 as Désert)

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was born in Nice in 1940. Le Clézio's father, a Mauritian-born British medical officer, moved from England to British Guyana, and then to Nigeria. Before the family was reunited, he lived years in Africa – "my father was a bush doctor," Le Clézio said. His French mother also had a Mauritian background. 

His early childhood Le Clézio spent in Roquebillière, a small village near Nice. At the age of eight Le Clézio started to write poetry and read comics. In 1947 he traveled to Nigeria with his mother and brother, spending there a happy year without school. Later the author depicted his childhood in the semi-autobiographical novel Onitsha (1991), in which a young boy sails with his mother to Africa, where his English father is chasing his own dreams.

Le Clézio was educated at schools in Nice, where his mother settled during the war. In 1957 Le Clézio passed his baccalauréat in literature and philosophy. He then studied at the Bristol University, at the University of London, and Institut d'Études Littéraires in Nice. In 1964 he received his M.A. from the University of Aix-en-Provence. Le Clézio obtained his doctoral degree from the University of Perpignan.

In 1960 Le Clézio married Rosalie Piquemal, half-French, half-Polish; they had one daughter. After divorce Le Clézio remarried. His second wife, Jémia, was born in Morocco. From this marriage he also had a daughter.

As a writer Le Clézio made his breakthrough with his first novel, Le procès-verbal (1963), which was awarded the Théophraste Renaudot Prize. The work introduced one of his central themes, the flight from commonly accepted ways of thought into extreme states of mind. Adam Pollo, the protagonist, is a sensitive youg man, who wanders around the town, much like a stray dog, and after making an agitated speech to an apathetic crowd eventually ends up in a mental hospital for a period. The mood of the novel has been compared to that of Camus's Stranger and Sartre's Nausea.

Le Clézio's writing is simultaneously clear and intensive, impressionistic and controlled, nostalgic and contemporary. In an interview Le Clézio once said, that his favorite novelist are Stevenson and Joyce – noteworthy both exiled writers. Often his protagonists are loners, who try to find ways to cope with the modern life and technology, or come into conflict with urban surroundings.

Le procès-verbal was soon translated into several languages, among others into Finnish. In spite of his international fame, Le Clézio said in an article in 1965: "Not yet sure if writing is a good way of expression." In 1994 he was voted most popular living writer in France by the readers of the literary magazine Lire.

Although Le Clézio's novels were received with great enthusiasm in France, he had no ambitions to join the literary elite of Paris, but adopted a nomadic lifestyle. He divided his time with his wife between France, the U.S. and Mauritius, which he dd not visit until 1981; he called the island his "little fatherland." Already before the publication of the 'Journal du Chercheur d'o´(1984-84, Diary of the Gold Prospector), which drew from the life of Le Clézio's paternal grandfather Léon, a Mauritian magistrate, Mauritians claimed the author as their own. Le Clézio also traveled in Nigeria and Japan and published translations of Mayan sacred texts. At the time of winning the Nobel Prize he lived in a mobile home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 2007-2008 Le Clézio worked as a teacher in South Korea.

When asked in 2006, where he wanted to be buried, Le Clézio said, "Sur une île" (On an island). Through Le Clézio's novels the sun and the sea, light and water, are recurrent images. From 1969 to 1973 Le Clézio lived among the Embera Indians in Panama. Haï (1971), written during this period, is a lyrical account of the author's experience which, as he has confessed, changed his whole life. On the whole, the natural environment, animate and inanimate, forms a kind of philosophical, unifying ground for Le Clézio's themes.

A sought after teacher of creative writing, Le Clézio taught in colleges and universities around the world, including in 1966-67 at the Buddhist University in Thailand, the University of Mexico, Mexico City, the Boston University, the University of Texas, Austin, and the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. "Literature is a complex, difficult path, but I hold it to be even more vital today than in the time of Byron or Victor Hugo," Le Clézio argued in his Nobel Prize lecture. His constant travels are reflected in the settings of his books. Through his own experience he has described the clash of cultures, and the unequal side of globalization, the domination of Western rationalism. In Désert (1980), which received the Grand Prix Paul Morand, a young nomad woman, Lalla, from the Sahara becomes a famous photo model, but she returns to Tangier to give birth to her child. A parallel story tells of the crushing of the Tuaregs in the beginning of the 20th century by the French colonizers. There is also the story of a young boy, who travels across the Western Sahara in a caravan. All of Le Clézio's characters have an unique relationship with the barren and hot desert.

For further reading: Conversations avec J.-M. G. Le Clézio by P. Lhoste (1971); 'Le Clézio, J(ean) M(arie) G(ustave),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); J.-M. G. Le Clézio by Jennifer Waelti-Walters (1977); Le Clézio ou la quête du désert by Simone Domange (1993); Le Clézio, la quête de l’accord originel by Nicolas Pien (2004); Le Clézio, "peintre de la vie moderne" by Marina Salles (2007); "Privileged Moments" in the Novels and Short Stories of J.M.G. Le Clézio: His Contemporary Development of a Traditional French Literary Device by Keith Moser (2008); Le Clézio’s Spiritual Quest by Thomas Trzyna (2012); The Fiction of J.M.G. Le Clézio: A Postcolonial Reading by Bronwen Martin (2012); J.M.G. Le Clézio: a Concerned Citizen of the Global Village by Keith Moser (2013); Narrating Expiation in Mauritius and the Indian Ocean Aquapelago: The Islanding of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio by Jacqueline Dutton, in Shima, Vol. 12 Issue 1 (2018); Le Clézio, l'homme du secret by Aliette Armel (2019) 

Selected works:

  • Le Procès-Verbal, 1963
    - The Interrogation (translated by Daphne Woodward, 1964)
    - Raportti Aatamista (suom. Olli-Matti Ronimus, 1965)
  • Le Jour où Beaumont fit connaissance avec sa douleur, 1964
  • La Fièvre, 1965
    - Fever (translated by Daphne Woodward, 1966)
    - Kuume (suom. Leila Adler, 1967)
  • Le Déluge, 1966
    - The Flood (translated by Peter Green, 1968)
  • L'Extase matérielle, 1966
  • Terra amata, 1968
    - Terra Amata (translated Barbara Bray, 1969)
  • Le Livre des fuites, 1969
    - The Book of Flights (translated by Simon Watson Taylor, 1972)
  • La Guerre, 1970
    - War (translated by Simon Watson Taylor, 1973) 
  • Haï, 1971
  • Les Géants, 1973
    - The Giants (translated by Simon Watson Taylor, 1975)
  • Mydriase, 1973
  • Voyages de l'autre côté, 1975
  • Les Prophéties du chilam Balam, 1976 (translator) 
  • Voyage aux pays des arbres, 1978
  • L'Inconnu sur la terre, 1978
  • Vers les Icebergs, 1978
  • Mondo et autres histoires, 1978
    - film: Mondo (1996), dir. by Tony Gatlif, starring Ovidiu Balan, Philippe Petit, Pierrette Fesch, Jerry Smith
  • Désert, 1980
    - Desert (translated by C. Dickson, 2009)
    - Autiomaa (suom. Marjatta Ecaré, 1984)
  • Trois Villes saintes, 1980
  • Lullaby, 1980
  • La Ronde et autres faits divers, 1982
    - The Round & Other Cold Hard Facts = La ronde et autres faits divers (translated by C. Dickson, 2002)
  • Celui qui'n avait jamais vu la mer; La Montagne du dieu vivant, 1984
  • Relation de Michocan, 1984 (translator)
  • Le Chercheur d'or, 1985
    - The Prospector (translated by Carol Marks, 1993)
  • Villa aurore; Orlamonde, 1985
  • Balaabilou, 1985
  • Voyage à Rodrigues, 1986
  • Les Années Cannes, 1987
  • Le Rêve mexicain, ou, La Pensée interrompue, 1988
    - Mexican Dream, or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, 1993)
  • Printemps et autres saisons: nouvelles, 1989
  • Sirandanes; Un Petit Lexique de la langue créole et des oiseaux, 1990
  • Onitsha, 1991
    - Onitsha (translated by Alison Anderson, 1997)
    - Kaupunki nimeltä Onitsha (suom. Annikki Suni, 1994)
  • Pawana, 1992
  • Étoile errante, 1992
    - Wandering Star (translated by C. Dickson, 2004)
    - Harhaileva tähti (suom. Annikki Suni, 2000)
  • Diego et Frida, 1993
  • La Quarantaine, 1995
  • In the Eye of the Sun: Mexican Fiestas, 1996 (photographs by Geoff Winningham; introduction by Richard Rodriguez)
  • Poisson d'or, 1997
  • La fête chantée, 1997
  • Enfances, 1997 (with Christophe Kuhn)
  • Hasard suivi de Angoli Mala, 1999
  • Fantômes dans la rue, 2000
  • Coeur brûlé et autres romances, 2000
  • Révolutions, 2003
  • L'Africain, 2004
    - The African (translated from the French by C. Dickson, 2013)
  • Mondo et autres histoires, 2005
    - Mondo and other stories = Mondo et autres histoires (translated from the French by Alison Anderson, 2011)
  • Ourania, 2006
  • Raga: approche du continent invisible, 2006
  • Ballaciner, 2007
  • Ritournelle de la faim, 2008
    - Alkusoitto (suom. 2009)
  • Histoire du pied et autres fantaisies: nouvelles, 2011
  • Tempête: deux novellas, 2014
  • The Intercultural and the Arts, 2017 (J.M.G. Le Clézio & Issa Asgarally)
  • Alma: roman, 2017
  • Bitna, sous le ciel de Séoul, 2018
    - Bitna: Under the Sky of Seoul (translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, 2017)
  • Quinze causeries en Chine: aventure poétique et échanges littéraires, 2019 (avant-propos et recueil des textes par Xu Jun)
  • Chanson bretonne: suivi de, L'enfant et la guerre: deux contes, 2020
  • Francophonie: pour l'amour d'une langue, 2020

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