James Marcus’s report on Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio in Conversation with Adam Gopnik at the 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center on Friday, April 24th is part of Words Without Borders ongoing coverage of the 2009 PEN World Voices Festival.
Although he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio is still an unknown quantity for most American readers. Perhaps the idea of an eminent French writer living in New Mexico–and not in the trendy, New Age redoubt of Santa Fe, but in hardscrabble Albuquerque–was too much to wrap our collective heads around. In any case, there was a great deal of anticipation in the air at the 92nd Street Y as the audience waited for this mystery man to hit the stage. When he finally did come out, he and his interlocutor made something of a Mutt-and-Jeff pair: the diminutive (at least by comparison) Adam Gopnik in a black suit, and Le Clezio himself in gray, with white socks that peeked out from beneath his trouser cuffs when he sat down.
Le Clé zio was born in Nice in 1940, and spent his early childhood in that area. But when he was eight, he and his mother and brother sailed to Nigeria, where his father had been serving in the British army. And that commenced a lifetime of wandering for the author, who has also lived in England, Thailand, South Korea, and Mexico. (To complicate matters further, Le Clézio has deep roots on the island of Mauritius, where his paternal ancestors first settled in 1798. In fact, he holds dual French and Mauritian citizenship, and considers his connection to France more linguistic than strictly geographical.)
Gopnik was quick to address this peripatetic progress. “What brought you to Albuquerque?” he asked. “I was living in Mexico for a long time,” Le Clézio explained. “I was teaching at a small college. But the situation got bad for people who had small children. It became dangerous. So my wife and I decided to move, and like so many people in Mexico, we crossed the border.” He added: “I like very much the New World.”
But travel seemed to be in his DNA, suggested Gopnik, not merely a matter of circumstance. Le Clézio agreed. His ancestors were from Brittany, which he compared to Ireland: a land whose perennial poverty caused its people to leave “whenever they could.” Yet the one constant, no matter where Le Clézio ended up, was the French language. This first love, this loyalty, began during his childhood. “I very much enjoyed going through dictionaries,” he recalled. “I still see life through those page, those definitions.”
At this point the two writers shared a moment of lexicological bliss (Gopnik indicated a preference for the big illustrated Larousse). Then they moved on to another of Le Clézio’s early infatuations: J.D. Salinger, who Gopnik described as “one of the local gods” at The New Yorker. What the French author loved about Salinger was, in a sense, what he loved about the dictionary: an accumulation of luminous details, and the feeling that “each word is a world by itself.” He had particular praise for “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which he called “one of the best short stories ever written.” Albert Camus also got high marks from his fellow Nobel laureate, for his refusal to deliver knee-jerk messages of affirmation.
Next came a discussion of landscape, a kind of Le Clézio trademark. As he recounted, he was a longtime believer in plein-air literary experience–he had happy memories of reading and writing outside in Nice, curled up under an olive tree. Perhaps, he conceded, this did have a formative effect. It prevented him from seeing an essential separation between the terrain and its inhabitants. “I don’t feel that human beings are very different from the rest of creation,” he noted. “We share that same world. We have the same language, dreams, the same impulsions, as the animals and the vegetation.” (Le Clézio’s excellent English may have betrayed him here for a moment. The same language? Maybe this Doolittle-like scenario exists in the south of France, but it’s certainly not the case in Albuquerque.)
“Everything is connected,” Le Clézio declared, alluding not only to a pantheistic identification with the natural world but to the darker continuities of human history. Colonialism, for example, is an immediate and intimate phenomenon for him, which he observed at close range during his childhood years in Nigeria. “I still remember violent images of African people in chain gangs,” he said, “walking in the sun, being led to a place where they would build a swimming pool for a colonial officer. ” He also acknowledges that his own hands are, from an historical point of view, anything but clean. After all, the French in Mauritius were active in the slave trade. “When I read Faulkner,” Le Clézio said, “I know what he means. I am from the same culture.” “The slave-owning culture?” Gopnik asked. “Yes,” came the answer.
And how does one atone for such things, or at least avoid repeating them? For Le Clézio, literature was a partial solution, breaking down the barriers between cultures and even individuals. It was, he argued, “the best way to understand, and to begin to love, others.” Yet he was reluctant to don the mantle of the engagé author, for whom art is merely (as Clausewitz might have said) a continuation of politics by other means. This soon prompted a question from the audience: was Le Clézio himself actively involved in any political causes? His response was somewhat surprising. “The period when I was writing outside is terminated now,” he confessed. “I work inside, on an ordinary table. I don’t really feel connected to actuality.” Surely this was a retreat from his old aesthetic–and from the very idea of connectivity he had advanced earlier in the evening. Meanwhile Le Clezio, whose modesty seems instinctive and genuine, went one step further. “I’m not a man of action,” he said, “not at all.” True, it’s hard to imagine him shouting slogans in his mild, French-accented English, or forming a human chain in front of the Pentagon. But on the page–which is all that matters for a writer–a man of action is exactly what he is.
James Marcus is a writer, translator, critic, and editor. He is the author of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut and six translations from the Italian, the most recent being Carlo Bonini’s Collusion: International Espionage and the War on Terror and Saul Steinberg’s Letters to Aldo Buzzi. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, Salon, Newsday, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The Harvard Review, Raritan, and many other publications.