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Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio (AFP/Getty Images)

French Novelist Wins Nobel Prize In Literature

Oct 9, 2008 (Morning Edition)

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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."

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