The international takeover of French literatureThe Afghan-born Prix Goncourt winner Atiq Rahimi. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty
The motives that guide the gaze of the literary world can be bothunthinkingly loyal and randomly fickle. For while there are moresacred cows grazing on the lush pastures of literature’s vastcanonical steppe than there are dead ones hanging in Smithfieldmarket, it doesn’t take long for last year’s big thing to fall off theshelves into the ignominy of remainderdom, replaced by a glut of morebrightly coloured, aggressively marketed, bright young things.
This can happen to whole countries as well as individual authors. TakeFrance, for example. Before the award of this year’s Nobel prize forliterature to the Franco-Mauritian JMB Le Clézio, the names of veryfew French authors were spoken outside specifically francophoneconfines, Michel Houellebecq and, to a much lesser extent, AmélieNothomb aside. A glance down the list of Nobel literature laureatesshows that since Sartre was offered, and refused, the prize in 1964,only Claude Simon (1984) and now Le Clézio have been French. Yet thefirst half of the century is crammed with French names, includingBergson, Gide, Sartre and Camus and even the very first prize, whichwent to the French poet and essayist Sully Prudhomme.
It is interesting then, with the Nobel prize returning the world’sgaze to homegrown French literature once more, that the gaze of theFrench literary establishment seems in turn to have cast itself muchmore widely than is usual. This is surprising, because the attitude ofour neighbours to their books is probably even more protectionist thantheir attitudes to their car manufacturing and agricultural industries. But to reflect on the recent spate of awards, bundled together as usual in November, is to behold a country opening up its literary lens as rarely before.
The biggest of the prizes, the Goncourt, went to Afghan-born AtiqRahimi for his novel Syngué Sabour (Stone of Patience). Beautiful,painful, and groundbreaking in its way, the novel is nonetheless only accidentally French. Beside him on the shortlist were Michel Le Bris’s fast-paced romp between New York and Africa in the roaring 20s and Jean-Marie Blas de Robles’s Brazillian-set Là où les tigres sont chez eux, which also carried off a Prix Médicis.
This international turn in the Goncourt is mirrored in the award ofthe haughty Académie Française’s Grand Prix du roman to the formerFrench ambassador to Sweden, Marc Bressant, for his La DernièreConférence. Set in London, the novel is a semi-fictional reconstruction ofthe 1989 conference which turned Glasnost up to full heat andorchestrated the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is also notably un-French in style, basking in the kind of straight-talking, faction-packed tradition of reportage most highly prized by British and American readers. Elsewhere, the Prix Renaudot, which last year went to the staple of French letters Daniel Pennac, was won by the Guinean author Tierno Monénembo for Le Roi de Kahel. Today’s announcement of the Prix Interralié, won in 2007 by Christophe Ono-dit-Biot for his tale of the drug and antiques trafficking in Rangoon, Birmane, may well follow the trend.
It would be a shame if France were to turn its back on its homegrown tradition of high-art literature, for it has held onto it better and for longer than most European countries. But the internationalist turn in French literature is not about dumbing down. To judge from history, the last great phase in which French writers fixed their focus so far from their borders – the long build-up to Revolution – also marked the moment when the world’s eyes were most firmly fixed on French literature, science and philosophy. So if some literary purists might be worrying about the dissipation of French tradition, the politicians, at least, should be rubbing their hands at the waxing of their cultural star.
Posted by Guy Dammann Wednesday November 19 2008 12.19 GMT
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