STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We now know the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. And it should come as no surprise that this year's winner is European after comments last week in which a Nobel official called Europe, quote, "the center of the literary world," and referred to American literature as - what was it, NPR's Neda Ulaby?
NEDA ULABY: Isolated and insular.
INSKEEP: OK. And the winner then, the European winner is Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio. He is French. He is 68. He's written novels, short stories, essays, more than 30 books in fact. And tell us a little more about this winner, Neda.
ULABY: He was born in Nice. He moved to Africa with his doctor father and the rest of his family, of course, when he was a child. And that experience profoundly shaped his outlook and also his tastes. He went on to travel the world, and has been since. He got out of, well, he deferred his military service in France by teaching at a Buddhist university in Bangkok after which he lived with a Panamanian tribe...
INSKEEP: OK, certainly not insular here, then.
ULABY: No, not particularly at all. Since then he's, well, most recently he's been splitting his time between Central America, Europe, and the United States.
INSKEEP: OK. And when did he start writing in all of this?
ULABY: When he was 23 years old he sent his first manuscript to France's most prestigious publishing house. No agent, no fanfare, nothing. It's published. It becomes an overnight sensation, and he becomes this kind of literary rock star in France, which as you can imagine is pretty exciting. But he was so troubled by all of the publicity he received that for a while he was forbidding photographers to take pictures of him in close-up, because his privacy was so important to him.
INSKEEP: OK. Well now, what are some of the major themes in his writing that have now brought Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio the Nobel Prize?
ULABY: Well, as you can imagine, he grew up reading Sartre and Camus. And when he was younger that was a very pronounced influence in his work.
INSKEEP: The great French writers, sure.
ULABY: Indeed. He was also compared to J.D. Salinger when he was younger. His protagonists tend to be loners finding ways of coping with modern life and ennui technology. They come into conflict with urban surroundings. There are recurring themes of blindness and light. In one of his novels, the character is so depressed, he goes to a beach, lies down in the sand, and blinds himself by staring into the sun.
INSKEEP: Ennui, that means boredom. Is that right?
ULABY: I believe so.
INSKEEP: OK, so he's talking about people that are trying to deal with some of the depression of modern life. How does he fit in then with other Nobel laureates?
ULABY: Like Elfriede Jelinek, he is a very experimental writer. But one of the things that he has in common with a lot of the more recent Nobel winners is that he works through political problems in his books. But there's something a little bit more mystical about him. He writes about language not just as a tool through which people can be dominated, but a way that people can open themselves to the cosmos.
INSKEEP: Oh. Well let's see if the Nobel Committee is able to open itself to the cosmos here. After these remarks - that we've made fun of, a little bit here, this European person on the Nobel Committee saying that Europe is the center of the world, that Americans, for example, are insular - is there any pressure then - is there going to be any pressure to name a non-European next time around, do you think?
ULABY: You know, I think it'll just be interesting in terms of geographical diversity to have a non-European. There's intense political pressure on the Nobel Committee. But the permanent secretary of the Nobel seemed to backtrack a little bit when he made the announcement this morning. He said that Le Clezio is not a typically French writer. He called him a bit of a nomad. He said that writers are more and more difficult to place in terms of nationality. They are people who find stimulation, he said, in displacing themselves from their cultural origins.
INSKEEP: As long as they're European, of course.
INSKEEP: Just one question, Neda Ulaby. If there's a book I want to rush out now and read of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, is there one that's easily available in the United States?
ULABY: There are. Many of them are. "Interrogation," his first novel, is the one that I would begin with.
INSKEEP: NPR's Neda Ulaby, thanks very much.
ULABY: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: She's bringing us up to date on news that the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
The Swedish Academy praised Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio for his adventurous novels, essays, non-fiction and children's literature. His work is often about wanderers, people on a quest for meaning and grappling with national histories.
French Novelist Wins Nobel Prize In Literature
Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio; Olivier Laban-Mattei, AFP, Getty Images
The Swedish Academy announced Thursday that Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio won the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature. In making the announcement, the academy praised the author for his adventurous novels, essays and children's literature.
The 68-year-old writer began his career as a shy 23-year-old who, lacking an agent, slipped a manuscript into an envelope and sent it to France's most prestigious publisher. Then a recent college graduate, Le Clezio was completely unprepared for the storm of celebrity that followed; that first novel, Le Proces-verbal, won the Prix Theophraste Renaudot in 1963.
Le Proces-verbal, tells the story of a disaffected youth wandering a small city in the South of France who ends up in a mental institution. Heavily influenced by such fashionable existentialists as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the book made Le Clezio a media darling — and it didn't hurt that this intellectual wunderkind happened to be a tall, blonde head-turner. But the author so tired of the attention that he banned photographers from getting within a few yards of him and mocked his own public image in his second book, La Fievre.
Le Clezio has written more than 30 books, many of them nonfiction, as well as essays, stories, children's literature and even a translation of sacred Mayan texts. His work is often about wanderers, people on a quest for meaning and grappling with national histories. Wandering Star compassionately brings together a Holocaust survivor with a young Palestinian woman in the early days of the state of Israel. The Prospector conceals a compelling indictment of European colonialism within a story about a quest for buried gold on an island in the Indian Ocean.
Born in Nice, Le Clezio defines himself as a global citizen; he has family roots in Mauritius, lived in Africa as a child, taught for a while in England, and completed an alternative to France's military service by working in Mexico and Thailand. In the early 1970s, he lived for years with an indigenous tribe of Emberas in the jungles of Panama, and became entranced by their culture. He has maintained deep intellectual and emotional ties with Latin America, and has among other accomplishments, translated sacred Mayan texts.
In announcing Le Clezio as the winner, Horace Engdahl, the Swedish Academy's permanent secretary, described the author as a nomadic writer, rather than a typically French one.
"Writers are more and more difficult to locate in terms of nationality," said Engdahl. "They find stimulation in displacing themselves from cultural origins."