The World Has No Center
Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008. Among his many works are Le Procès-verbal and Desert. He spoke recently with Global Viewpoint Network contributing editor Michael Skafidas in New York.
NPQ | In your Nobel lecture, you asserted that the writer's world is a passive one. "How can the writer act when all he knows is how to remember?" you asked. Yet, for other Nobel writers such as Nadine Gordimer, writing itself is action.
Jean-Marie Gustave le Clézio | Yes, in a way she is right, writing is an action. When I said this, I was drawing a distinction between my views and the illusion that possessed many French writers shortly after World War II. At the time, they thought they could change society and create a better world. We know very well that this did not happen. That better world is nowhere to be seen.
This reality caused a crisis of confidence in literature. I was, in a way, denouncing the so-called "engaged literature" and its followers because they were unable to be anything but negative and failed to promote a new way of thinking. They were just engaging in a kind of pessimistic self-satisfaction.
Because of their delusions, they were mistaken most of the time. (Jean-Paul) Sartre, for example, was reluctant to denounce the regime of Mao Zedong. I was rather touched by the pessimism of (the Swedish writer) Stig Dagerman, who ended up committing suicide. It was impossible for him to survive in such desperation.
I'm not pessimistic myself. But still you have to know that when you are a writer you have to be modest; you just write stories, you tell tales. You might bring some of your own feelings and ideas into your writing, but you are not going to change the world. You are just trying to express yourself in the best way. You are like everybody else, but with a talent of telling.
NPQ | Last year, the Swedish Academy's permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, said the American culture was too "isolated" and "insular" and did not participate in the global dialogue of literature. Even though you've lived and taught in the United States, your work was never read widely here prior to the Nobel last year. Why?
le Clézio | I suppose this came as a consequence of the post-World War II era. Sartre and (Albert) Camus were celebrated in the US, but their followers quickly faded. After them came the nouveau roman in French literature. The nouveau roman was something very abstract, appealing to a small audience of readers, mainly in universities as a matter of scholarly study. This lack of interest by a major public was followed by a total disinterest in the culture from which those writers emerged.
Unfortunately for me, I came after all this. Like most of my French contemporary colleagues, we all arrived on the scene in the wake of this mistrust, this disinterest. We have to overcome that. I am sure in the end we will, just by continuing to write and publish. It's a challenging task!
NPQ | Your Nobel award last year took many leading American writers and critics by surprise. They were hoping and lobbying for popular American authors such as Philip Roth. This led some European critics even to boast that Europe is still the center of the literary world. What's your take on that?
le Clézio | The world has no center. And I don't feel either that the US is so envious of the Europeans; Americans are just looking in another direction now. They are not looking toward Europe, which is natural because of the mistrust I mentioned earlier.
Literature now is the expression of a global concern, not only of the European culture, but literature emerging from all voices and from all nations. This is what interests me most. It's why I like so much to travel. I'm able to meet writers in many diverse places, such as America, Africa or India. All those writers are trying to express something particular which belongs to the universal.
NPQ | "Literature does not belong to a nationality," you have said, "It belongs to a language." Nowadays, it seems, unless a book is written in a predominant language, it has less and less chances to reach a global audience. For instance, Greek, Portuguese and even French literature all suffer from this global trend.
le Clézio | I'm quite optimistic on that. My feeling is that the so-called "minority languages" are going to have access to general communication more and more not only because people will probably try to learn more languages as globalization develops, but because through translation these works are available more and more. Translation is the essential means of spreading literature. We might find that through the Internet the access to different languages and cultures is now greater than before.
Identity is absolutely essential, and it is linked to language. Identity does not necessarily mean a link with a nation or a piece of land, but mostly with a modern culture or an ancient culture. All human languages are ancient; none were created in recent history. All the roots go way back.
NPQ | Yet book publishing today is in crisis. People read less and watch more. Now Kindle may finally kill off book publishing.
le Clézio | Frankly, I don't consider Kindle to be a threat. In some countries, the prices of books are prohibiting. In Mauritius, for instance, the price of a book published in Europe or in the US would correspond to a great part of a family's budget for the month, so most of the people there have no means to buy books. So I'm sure that books on the Net, or eventually the Kindle, might be a good answer to this lack of means.
Personally, I still like books and I suppose to salvage them we will have to develop all possible ways for the public to access books. "Shared editions" is a great such way: A book published in the US or in Europe could be published as well in Africa by a local publisher for a more reasonable price. But before we talk about the new era of the Kindle or shared editions, we need to first address literacy, which is still lacking in many countries. In places such as Mauritius, 35 percent of the population can't read.
NPQ | How important is literature in this age of accelerated globalization of cultures?
le Clézio | I think literature is essential because you create interculturality through imagination. Literature in the 21st century is the only place to understand the other, because literature is about compassion for humanity. I do not have the Christian message in mind here. I mean the capacity of understanding others and being aware of their connection to you. But, in order to be compassionate, one should be able to understand the human condition, to understand another culture's point of view, to see the meaninglessness of "otherness."
Today we see the possibility of unprecedented connections between very distant places, such as some children living in a forest in Panama becoming aware of the poetry of Homer. This is amazing; it never happened before in the history of humanity.
The hunger for knowledge has always been universal. Now with the Internet and communications, that hunger can be fed.
Communication has nothing to do with money or with political power. It has to do with the essential curiosity of human beings. Communication nowadays is like water—it goes everywhere. You can't prevent water from flowing. The power of knowledge and communication is overwhelming, reaching all the points of the planet.
I strongly believe that this is the hope for a change. Definitely our present days are better in this respect because we know that others exist. As I said, there is no place in the world which Homer cannot reach. He can be everywhere and so can William Shakespeare.
I think mixing of cultures, which doesn't necessarily mean mixing of nations, is one of the fundamental aspects of being. It's due to our curiosity. We want to see what's on the other side. Who knows? This explosion of communication may eventually prevent wars.