Le Clézio, J(ean)-M(arie) G(ustave)

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LE CLÉZIO, J(ean)-M(arie) G(ustave)

Nationality: French. Born: Nice, 13 April 1940. Education: Schools in Africa, 1947-50; schools in Nice, 1950-57; Bristol University, England, 1958-59; University of London, 1960-61; Institut d'Études Littéraires, Nice, 1959-63, licence-ès-lettres 1963; University of Aix-en-Provence, M.A. 1964; University of Perpignan, docteur-és-lettres 1983. Family: Married Rosalie Piquemal in 1961 (divorced), one daughter; remarried, one daughter. Career: Teacher, Buddhist University, Bangkok, 1966-67, University of Mexico, Mexico City, 1967, Boston University, University of Texas, Austin, and University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Lived with Embera Indians, Panama, 1969-73; has lived in Nice, since 1973. Awards: Renaudot prize, 1963; Larbaud prize, 1972; Académie Française Morand prize, 1980. Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.


Short Stories

La Fièvre. 1965; as Fever, 1966.

Le Déluge. 1966; as The Flood, 1967.

Mondo et autres histoires. 1978; as Mondo, 1990.

La Ronde et autres faits divers. 1982.

Printemps et autres saisons: nouvelles. 1989.


Le Procès-Verbal. 1963; as The Interrogation, 1964.

Le Jour oú Beaumont fit connaissance avec sa douleur. 1964.

Terra amata. 1968; as Terra Amata, 1969.

Le Livre des fuites. 1969; as The Book of Flights, 1971.

La Guerre. 1970; as War, 1973.

Les Géants. 1973; as The Giants, 1975.

Voyages de l'autre côté. 1975.

Voyage aux pays des arbres. 1978.

Désert. 1980.

Le Chercheur d'or. 1985.

Villa aurore; Orlamondo. 1985.

Balaabilou. 1985.

Onitsha. 1991.


L'Extase matérielle. 1966.

Haï. 1971.

Mydriase. 1973.

L'Inconnu sur la terre. 1978.

Vers les Icebergs. 1978.

Trois Villes saintes. 1980.

Lullaby (for children). 1980.

Celui qui n'avait jamais vu la mer; La Montagne du dieu vivant (for children). 1984.

Voyage á Rodriques. 1986.

Les Années Cannes: 40 ans de festival. 1987.

Le Rêve mexicain, ou, La Pensée interrompue. 1988.

Sirandanes; Un Petit Lexique de la lanque créole et des oiseaux. 1990.

Translator, Les Prophéties du chilam Balam. 1976.

Translator, Relation de Michocan. 1984.


Critical Study:

Le Clézio by Jennifer Waelti-Walters, 1977.

* * *

With the works of J.-M. G. Le Clézio it is not easy to know where short fiction grades off into prose poetry and meditative essay, and into what he himself describes as a "roman" (novel), that is a unified book-length text in which characters occur and events at least seem to happen. In whatever he writes that is fiction, short or long, plot is not a structure but an ingredient, alongside parable and extended metaphor. Like all really powerful original minds, Le Clézio needs new literary forms to explore the meaning of the new forms of experience endured by himself and his contemporaries, and the possible ways out of their dilemmas.

Although the new forms of experience that interest Le Clézio are not uncommon, they are nonetheless often personal. Le Clézio shares with many important authors, including Michaux, Kafka, and Beckett, a strong preference to keep private the actual personal experiences whose nature and consequences are imaginatively examined in the published work, which, therefore, he almost maliciously forces to stand on its own, on occasion even deliberately subverting with irony the serious purpose of his imagination.

Born in 1940, Le Clézio spent three boyhood years in Africa, taught and studied for a period in England, and finished a postgraduate diploma at Nice in 1964 with a thesis on the French poet Henri Michaux (1899-1984). In 1963 Le Clézio published a very powerful fiction, Le Procès-Verbal, translated (wrongly) as The Interrogation, which won the most important of the French literary prizes, the Prix Renaudot. The collections La Fièvre (Fever) and Le Déluge (The Flood) followed. All the volumes are concerned with the major theme of Le Clézio's writing, the abatement of hostility to society and the flight from objects and sensations towards an inner self of peaceful simplicity, from which a new relationship with humanity and nature can proceed. The most appropriate literary form in which to cast light on the causes of spiritual pressures and to examine possible ways forward from the present struggles of life within advanced industrial societies turns out, for Le Clézio, to be the parable, in which to an unusual extent he combines a penetrating academic intelligence with great imaginative vigor.

When called up for military service, Le Clézio chose the option that allowed him to teach abroad; he went to Thailand to teach at the Buddhist University at Bangkok, moving from there to the University of Mexico in 1967. He then spent four further years in Mexico, living with the Embera Indians. Much of his subsequent work has had a clearly Thai Buddhist or Mayan derivation, and later has been addressed to children. After 1986 he published very little for some years, until Onitsha, which immediately went to the top of the bestseller lists.

With one exception, all the stories in Fever deal with the restoration of inner serenity, as in the second story, "The Day," in which Beaumont's toothache turns into an animal attacking his brain. Serenity is achieved through alcohol, and by the end of the story Beaumont is uncomfortably sitting inside his own tooth, the threat from the outside world represented by the toothache successfully repelled. In the exceptional story "Martin" the movement towards serenity is reversed. The hydrocephalic genius allows himself to be regarded as a prophet, and the people retaliate.

For ten years Le Clézio published only novels and essays, returning to the short fiction form only in 1978 with Mondo et autres histoires (Mondo). Three of the eight pieces have subsequently been issued in illustrated separate editions for children, as has one of the 11 pieces in La Ronde et autres faits divers, short fictional narrations based on brief news items: a group of workers illegally crossing a frontier to find work, two girls running away, a rape, a child stealing the contents of a till, a road accident, a woman giving birth in a caravan attended only by a dog, a young man revisiting the site of an accident in which the girl he loved was killed. The point in a sense is cumulative. There are no brief news items; there are only human stories, and they generally have morals.

Among the stylistic devices used by Le Clézio are typographical tricks, sketches, unusual ways of laying out print, and the general exploitation of the printed page as an artifact. Stylistically the disorientation is pursued in the switching from "I" to "you" to "he" in the course of the same narration, which has the effect of underlining the irrelevance of who is telling the story or composing the fable, as also does the apparently arbitrary order of the episodes in some of the longer fiction. As Le Clézio's oeuvre has grown, the element of violence in his work has abated, although the clash of primitive opposites—like light and dark, sun and sea, male and female, town and forest—has not. The sense of sometimes mischievous humor has dwindled in importance and is not always as obvious as in the note prefixed to "Orlamonde" from La Rondé. "Any resemblance to any events which have happened is impossible." There is a sense in which Le Clézio's short fiction is unambitious, refraining from delving too deeply into the paths of flight, aggression, and withdrawal possibly open to the individual, and to the link between problems of human relationship and problems of communicating in language that is almost always discernible in the longer fiction.

Typical of the shorter pieces is "Ariane." Apparently it is just the compassionate fleshing out of a news item—the rape of a young girl by a gang of motorcyclists—and is just over 4, 500 words, about 14 pages. In fact it is a parable. The concrete city of high-rise apartment blocks has its desolate isolation violated, as the girl is violated, as modern life violates the integrity of the individual. The first paragraph describes the agglomeration of high-rise blocks, "cliffs of grey concrete," apparently deserted, next to a dry river, far from the sea or the town. Perhaps there is nobody here, perhaps the windows are walled up and painted on?

The non-omniscient narrator tells us for three pages what it seems like: no birds, no flies, occasional flitting shadows, children in the daytime, at night motorcycles. This is high-style writing, with words the average educated French speaker goes through life without using—"alvéole" (honey-comb cell) and "the voices of telivisors" rather than TV announcers. The reader is alerted to the fact that there is more to the story than the news item, even fleshed out. Reader interest must be sustained before it becomes possible to realize that this is not just a narrated event. Le Clézio substitutes for suspense recognizable over-writing to arouse the reader's expectations. Suspense would allow the reader to suppose that the text was no more than a short story.

It is by no means certain that Le Clézio consciously selects from his repertoire means of sustaining interest until the final gang rape, which until the end seems quite likely not to be going to happen. The real meaning of the fiction cannot be clear until it has. In fact reader expectation is kept alert by the tone of the linguistic communication, the repetition of syntactical patterns, exploitation of sentence lengths, the use of question marks by the narrator, the employment of tenses, and a score of other sorts of devices that a reader would not ordinarily remark on, nor a writer necessarily be conscious of using. Not all the short fiction is parable, but none is merely a written-up news item either. The irony of pretending that it was is one of several ways in which Le Clézio delights to tease his reader, and with which even his most straight-faced fiction is frequently spiked.

—A. H. T. Levi

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