by Peter Byrne
Literary Conscience: So what do you know about the 2008 Nobel Prize winner for literature?
Scribbler: He must be a good writer otherwise he wouldn't have won.
L.C.: No bluffing, please. No blog-talk. Give me something solid on J.M.G. Le Clézio.
S.: He's a Frenchman and they don't much win the Nobel any more.
L.C.: No book-chat, either. You're not on T.V. You spent your dissolute youth in Paris. Certainly you read Le Clézio's first book. It came out there in 1963.
S.: I can tell you this for certain. He was one of those thorough blonds, 200%, luminous. I recall seeing his photo.
L.C.: The books, not the looks! I'm not asking about his hair cut. Anyway the man was born in 1940. He's your vintage and probably hairless by now.
S.: The blondness was important. That's how I remember him, because he had family connections with Mauritius where skins are dark. It didn't jibe.
L.C.: So you read his book to solve the mystery?
S.: I leafed through it. Time was short. I was under siege. The battle of le théâtre de l'absurde was raging.
L.C.: Inexcusable! And just how do you propose to make up for your negligence?
S.: Okay, okay, Nobel oblige. I'll read some of his stuff.
Le Clézio, J.M.G.: Ritournelle de la faim, Gallimard, Paris, 2008, ISBN 978-2-07-012283-7, 206 pages. Mondo et autres histoires, Gallimard, 1978, Paris, ISBN 2-07-033785-5, 377 pages.
(Swans - February 23, 2009) To start with the last publication on Le Clézio's list of over fifty may not be the best way into his work. But it's one way in. Ritournelle de la faim turns out to read like a classic modern French psychological novel. It's sharply observed, unsentimental and grimly scoffs at optimism's wide grin.
On ne choisit pas son histoire. Elle t'est donnée sans que tu la cherches, e tu ne dois pas, tu ne peux pas la refuser. /You don't choose your story. It comes to you unasked and you should not and cannot refuse it. (Page 122)
And the novel never strays out of the French hexagone, keeping its nose obsessively in Paris and Nice. No surprises here as French writing goes, but the word on Le Clézio was that he turned his back on the Rive Gauche and embraced the wide world in unheard of ways. Ritournelle has not got much farther down the road than the 1920s novels of André Gide or François Mauriac. We are still in the petty bourgeois Paris of neighborhood spite and scheming lawyers (les notaires, that Gallic scourge). The novel would scarcely have stirred Nobel Committee appetites, which habitually hanker for a big bite of fresh zeitgeist.
The last French writer they honored was Claude Simon in 1985, a practitioner of le Nouveau Roman, then at its brief peak of literary fashion. It's not that quality doesn't count for the Nobel people. But they won't hand over the laurels without an additional angle. Doris Lessing, "epicist of the female experience," was a female. Orhan Pamuk denied that civilizations clashed. Harold Pinter told the Bush administration where to get off. The Who're-they? trio from Austria, South Africa, and Hungary kept the small powers happy. V.S. Naipaul gave "Islamofascists" one in the eye while Gao Xingjian, resident in France, was a stick to beat the Chinese in Chinese.
A quick rifling of Le Clézio's biography gives us an answer. A quirk of history made J.M.G. a British subject by way of his Mauritian-French father. Once out of school he never stopped traveling and bedding down abroad. He always preferred ancient, not to say clapped out societies to modern, technological advanced ones. He abhorred big cities. The experience that most marked him was a sojourn among the Embera and Waunana Indians in Panama. It convinced him that we would have everything to gain by adopting their manner of social organization. Their sense of equality and liberty could free us from our aggression, commercialism, solitude, and ego-based art. Voilà the hook, the Swedish Committee's angle or theme of the year: The Embera and Co. naturally aren't contributing more than an occasional hard-come-by spark to global warming and the universal meltdown.
Nothing could be more in the swim of the moment than what Le Clézio has said of the ways of life that preceded ours: "I believe that these civilizations offer all sorts of lessons that we should listen to carefully: lessons of ecology, of equilibrium between man and nature, and of man with himself." (Entretiens sur France Culture avec J.-L. Ezine.) He found traces of models to follow in Mexico where he undertook a serious study of the Codex that chronicled ancient times. He published translations of the great Amerindian texts and, in the company of his second wife, Jemia, a Moroccan, experienced the culture of the Saharan peoples.
There is then no serious considering Ritournelle without a dip into Le Clézio's earlier work. Mondo et autres histoires will serve our purpose. Mondo is a child who sleeps rough in a small port city with a warm climate, perhaps in France. We learn nothing of who he is or where he comes from. The author wants him blank, and Mondo looks at the town's life as if he's arrived from another planet. He appreciates natural beauty and is content to sit contemplating it. He's close to animals, chatting with salamanders and friendly with crickets. He treats inanimate objects, including a boat and a sea wall, as persons and converses with them too. His notion of private property is nil. He lives through his senses, which are acute. He can ask troubling questions that people had long ago asked themselves and forgotten.
Various town outsiders are Mondo's companions: a pigeon-fancying beggar, a man adept at flying kites, a drunken Cossack with an accordion, and a gypsy fond of hot dogs. Mondo keeps up wordless communication with them. He never stops asking people if they want to adopt him. This is not a wish to be owned since freedom is his essence. He seeks brotherhood, solidarity. Finally he finds it in the house of an old Vietnamese woman. She shares his contemplative ways and attention to nature. Mondo comes and goes in her house where, in his irregular way, he likes to eat and sleep. He takes to the old woman because she talks little and makes no demands on him whatsoever.
Everything changes when the beggar is picked up and taken in charge by the dreaded social services. Mondo falls sick in the street and is picked up too. The old woman tries in vain to see him. When he escapes from public-assistance captivity, the director calls him a "savage." But with his vanishing, the town also undergoes a change. The web of connections disappears between nature, inanimate objects, and Mondo's friends. So does poetry. The old woman is left with only a memory of Mondo's plenitude.
What's the meaning of this portrait of a spacious vagabond life free of pain and all constraint? The answer would seem to be that Mondo is a child of nature, the good savage that the author sought out around the globe. The poet in Le Clézio shaped Mondo from the people that modern life had not yet spoiled. He's an idealized Embera or Waunana out of the Panamanian jungle. The other seven stories in the collection each reveal a child -- always a child -- of the same temper. He, in some cases she, is in touch with all facets of nature despite the interference of contemporary life. Lullaby flees a stifling school and has a mystical experience with sea and sun. For Jan a block of lava on a mountaintop triggers wordless enlightenment. Oneness with water transforms Juba, the rotation of the water wheel he tends opening another world to him. Each story immerses us in a nature that, inexhaustibly rich, bonds with the children as would a powerful person. Daniel has his taste of ecstasy thanks to the sea, which he knows as a huge indifferent beast. When the authorities bulldoze Alia's shanty town, she's saved by the magic of a pied-piper figure. Petite Croix's thrill of transcendence comes from the simple light of day and the colors in nature. Gaspar comes from elsewhere to learn the ways of the desert and finds himself transformed. The author's runaways teach us harmony and freedom as each story varies Mondo's trajectory of feelings.
Prepared by this sense of Le Clézio's world view, we can return to his latest work, Ritournelle de la faim, and see it differently. La faim, the hunger in question, is more than that, vividly described, which the French suffered during WWII. It's a gnawing dissatisfaction with modern life. The child Ethel has a tight bond with her maternal great uncle who early in life turned his back on colonial Mauritius and made his way in Africa and the Far East. He's passionately interested in the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931 to which he introduces the child. When it closes, this wealthy man buys the pavilion de l'Inde française, which especially moved him. He stores the dismantled building on a vacant lot he owns near Edith's home and tells her that he intends to reconstruct a low wooden oriental house there for her to live in.
The Mauve House-to-be fills the child's mind. She becomes the friend of Xénia, a Russian refugee who lives in harsh circumstances. The two children often go to the lot where the material is stored. They sit together and Ethel weaves a myth about the house she will live in. But Xénia has been toughened by life and the fight for survival. She's pugnacious and can't return Ethel's adolescent love. This failed relationship will haunt the whole novel. As an adult Ethel will see Xénia again. The former refugee will have traded her beauty and intelligence for a rich and comfortable life with a slack-minded businessman.
And Ethel will not have her Mauve House. At her great uncle's death, his fortune comes to her, but her father soon possesses it. He too returned from colonial Mauritius but never really turned his back on its planters' mentality. Like other of the novel's former colonials he's fixated on distant lands. The grand uncle saw these as an escape from Western vulgarity; Ethel's father thinks they are good places to invest money. He's ineffectual in the Parisian world, an irresponsible dreamer who claims his male right to ruin the family and bring on a genuine bourgeois tragedy. His final fiasco is an attempt to build ugly apartments on the site meant for the Mauve House. Ethel's loss and disappointment will pervade the rest of the story. It's as if the hardship of the German occupation, when the family lives in deprivation in Nice, is only another link in the chain of disillusion the little girl first felt with Xénia, and then as a teenager when her father poured concrete on her dream of the Mauve House.
The somber days in the south of France bring home to Ethel the failure of everything she's known. It dawns on her that she doesn't love her parents. Their marriage was marked by constant squabbles and the awkward presence of her father's mistress. His lavish entertaining brought to their home the worst elements of what would be Pétain's France. Only her closeness to a childhood friend who served with the British gives her a spark of hope. But, even when he returns and they marry, the hurt of Ethel's lost dream, the reality of a world that never measures up to her needs, casts a pall over the novel. The final pages exude the melancholy that Ethel's husband feels at the thought of his harmless aunt perishing in the Holocaust.
The author himself seems deeply pained by this vile chapter of history. (He's using Ethel to tell something of his own mother's story.) He will accord his characters a typical Le Clézio last chance for light, space, and freedom. They are allowed flight, and an escape from claustrophobic France. (Gide's and Mauriac's characters never looked beyond the French mainland for their salvation. But Le Clézio himself is an authentic fugueux, forever on the point of departure.) In a reasonable compromise the novelist sends the couple to Canada. We feared for a moment they would be dispatched to Panama to share the untainted life of the Embera and Waunana Indians. But skepticism is built into the classic French novel. Le Clézio's reacquaintance with its form, and perhaps his sixty-eight years, have sobered him up.
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