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This item is taken from PN Review 184, Volume 35 Number 2, November - December 2008.

From some of the reports, one would have thought the literary equivalent to Sarah Palin had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Suddenly in 2008 a laureate no one seemed to have read or indeed heard of was announced. It was 1980 all over again. When Czeslaw Milosz won, a leading British broadsheet expressed outrage that a writer no one had heard of, whose name no one could spell or pronounce, had carried off the laurels. Rather smugly, the Times Literary Supplement of 17 October 2008 reminds us that it knows who Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio is, and it has informed us patiently with each of his books, starting in 1963 when John Sturrock drew attention to 'an attractively playful and intelligent beginning'. In 2006, indeed, the TLS through Adrian Tahourdin had tentatively fingered him for the prize.

This year's anger was not limited to the Anglophone world. In the Austrian newspaper Die Presse on 10 October Norbert Mayer spoke out less against the winner than against the Swedish Academy for awarding the Prize to the Nice-born novelist and writer whose father was from Mauritius (the 'little fatherland') with a British passport and whose mother was French. 'The Academy can be relied upon to be narrow-minded,' he remonstrated. 'True to form, [Horace Oscar Axel] Engdahl and the other Swedish jury members awarded the Nobel Prize to a well-travelled Frenchman, a diligent scribe who is remarkable for being completely unremarkable outside Paris, despite having spent the last thirty-five years writing nice, conscientious literature which practises tough criticism of the capitalist west, while presenting exotic civilisations as naive and happy. A model Swede.' Steady on, Norbert: one stereotype at a time.

Certainly Le Clézio is a new kind of laureate, and it is high time the clearly distinguished work of a writer with his range of formal interests and cultures was acknowledged. First there is the multi-rootedness of the man. He was born in the Riviera, his father a doctor with a British passport who worked as a British army surgeon in Nigeria (where the boy joined him at the age of eight). He studied for a year at the University of Bristol, but completed his undergraduate degree at the Institut d'etudes Litteraires in Nice. In 1964 he completed a Masters degree on the work of Henri Michaux at the University of Aix-en-Provence. From Michaux he took cultural and philosophical bearings. He lived in England, then in the United States, working as a teacher. He was expelled from Thailand for protesting against the culture of child prostitution. In Mexico he became an expert on Michoacan and its Indian peoples. Everywhere he encountered the 'exotic civilisations' that so irk Norbert Mayer, for whom the possibility that lessons might be learned from such people reeks of sentimentality.

Le Clézio is, unapologetically, a teacher. He combines literary, artistic and anthropological interests. His writing can seem, to Anglophone readers, a little special. His first book, Le Procès- Verbal, translated as The Interrogation, won the Prix Renaudot in 1963 and was translated and noticed at least by the TLS. But on today it is listed as 'currently unavailable'. Le Clézio has now published thirty titles: essays, stories, novels, anthropological and ethnological works, and children's books. No doubt soon they will all find their way into English.

Perhaps the chief offence of the Swedish Academy, in Norbert Mayer's eyes, was Engdahl's suggestion that the United States is insular in matters of culture, that it 'does not participate in the big dialogue of literature'.

Where is one to find and join in that 'big dialogue'? Online, of course. Recently Iain Bamforth urged me to read an interview with Antonin Liehm, a founder editor of Lettre Internationale, 'which has now become lettre nationales as he explains'. The URL articles/2008-09-23-liehm-en.html led me to Eurozine, familiar no doubt to many of our readers but new to me. It is one of the most informative and exhilarating sites I have visited. 'The cultural divisions have become more important, it seems, even as the idea of a general culture has dwindled into insignificance,' Iain Bamforth wrote. Read the Liehm interview, then visit the larger site. Begin with Ismail Kadare's essay 'Don Quixote in the Balkans'. I kept returning to Eurozine, 'an alliance between old and new media', bringing together cultural and political material from many of the leading European newspapers and journals, translating it into some of the other languages of Europe.

The editors declare, 'Cultural journals are the sector of the media that most closely approximates a definition of the European public space.' Part of that definition comes from revisiting crisis points in the past, for example the events of 1968, and seeing whether they require different readings. Another part comes from asking questions about the future: what will post-secular Europe be like? Can there be such a thing as a European Islam? If so, what will its character be? A couple of dozen leading intellectuals from various disciplines, including Jörgen Habermas, Abdul-Rehman Malik, Klaus Eder, Ernest Gellner, Rachid Benzine and Tahar Ben Jelloun consider, jointly and severally, issues as important in the longer terms as the credit crisis, the Nobel Prize for Literature and the American vice-presidential affront.

This item is taken from PN Review 184, Volume 35 Number 2, November - December 2008.

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