Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clezio's name had long been floated as a potential Nobel recipient, but when it was announced at the Swedish Academy last week you could hear the crowd's shock — and delight.
Born in France, Le Clezio is well-respected in the Francophone world, despite the fact that the author never really sought much attention.
"He's a gentle writer," says his biographer, Jennifer Waelti-Walters. "He never became one of those trendy French writers that the French all read, but [he was] always present in the literary mileau."
That presence was firmly established in 1963, when Le Clezio, who was 23 at the time, quietly submitted his first manuscript to a prestigious publishing house — then promptly won a top French literary award. He became an overnight sensation.
"He was very shy, really good-looking, tall and blonde," says Waelti-Walters. "He was a wonderful storyteller."
For Le Clezio, storytelling means melting into the background. In an interview on the Nobel Web site, he says, "A writer is not a prophet, is not a philosopher, he's just someone who is witness to what is around him."
The Nobel's permanent secretary described Le Clezio as a nomad, someone who does not belong anywhere, and yet moves from culture to culture, and writes in the space he creates between them.
Waelti-Walters says that Le Clezio's world is one of exiles, loners and refugees. She adds he's finely attuned to nature and has a "kind of 19th-century facility with words."
"He could draw a word painting of a storm, and you'd feel as though you got wet," she says.