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JMG Le Clezio Nobel Lecture

JMG Le Clezio Nobel Lecture

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Published by Kevin Pham

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Published by: Kevin Pham on Aug 23, 2012
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09/23/2013

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© THE NOBEL FOUNDATION 2008
General permission is granted for thepublication in newspapers in any languageafter December 7, 2008, 5:30 p.m. (Swedish time).Publication in periodicals or books otherwisethan in summary requires the consentof the Foundation.On all publications in full or in major partsthe above underlined copyright noticemust be applied.
J.M.G. Le Clézio : In the forest of paradoxes
Nobel LectureDecember 7, 2008
 
1Why do we write? I imagine that each of us has his or her own response to this simplequestion. One has predispositions, a milieu, circumstances. Shortcomings, too. If we arewriting, it means that we are not acting. That we find ourselves in difficulty when weare faced with reality, and so we have chosen another way to react, another way tocommunicate, a certain distance, a time for reflection.If I examine the circumstances which inspired me to write–and this is not mere self-indulgence, but a desire for accuracy–I see clearly that the starting point of it all for mewas war. Not war in the sense of a specific time of major upheaval, where historicalevents are experienced, such as the French campaign on the battlefield at Valmy, asrecounted by Goethe on the German side and my ancestor François on the side of the
armée révolutionnaire.
That must have been a moment full of exaltation and pathos. No,for me war is what civilians experience, very young children first and foremost. Notonce has war ever seemed to me to be an historical moment. We were hungry, we werefrightened, we were cold, and that is all. I remember seeing the troops of Field MarshalRommel pass by under my window as they headed towards the Alps, seeking a passageto the north of Italy and Austria. I do not have a particularly vivid memory of that event.I do recall, however, that during the years which followed the war we were deprived of everything, in particular books and writing materials. For want of paper and ink, I mademy first drawings and wrote my first texts on the back of the ration books, using acarpenter’s blue and red pencil. This left me with a certain preference for rough paperand ordinary pencils. For want of any children’s books, I read my grandmother’sdictionaries. They were like a marvellous gateway, through which I embarked on adiscovery of the world, to wander and daydream as I looked at the illustrated plates, andthe maps, and the lists of unfamiliar words. The first book I wrote, at the age of six orseven, was entitled, moreover,
 Le Globe à mariner.
Immediately afterwards came abiography of an imaginary king named Daniel III—could he have been Swedish?—anda tale told by a seagull. It was a time of reclusion. Children were scarcely allowedoutdoors to play, because in the fields and gardens near my grandmother’s there wereland mines. I recall that one day as I was out walking by the sea I came across anenclosure surrounded by barbed wire: on the fence was a sign in French and in Germanthat threatened intruders with a forbidding message, and a skull to make things perfectlyclear.It is easy, in such a context, to understand the urge to escape—hence, to dream, and putthose dreams in writing. My maternal grandmother, moreover, was an extraordinarystoryteller, and she set aside the long afternoons for the telling of stories. They werealways very imaginative, and were set in a forest—perhaps it was in Africa, or in
 
2Mauritius, the forest of Macchabée—where the main character was a monkey who had agreat talent for mischief, and who always wriggled his way out of the most periloussituations. Later, I would travel to Africa and spend time there, and discover the realforest, one where there were almost no animals. But a District Officer in the village of Obudu, near the border with Cameroon, showed me how to listen for the drumming of the gorillas on a nearby hill, pounding their chests. And from that journey, and the timeI spent there (in Nigeria, where my father was a bush doctor), it was not subject matterfor future novels that I brought back, but a sort of second personality, a daydreamer whowas fascinated with reality at the same time, and this personality has stayed with me allmy life—and has constituted a contradictory dimension, a strangeness in myself that attimes has been a source of suffering. Given the slowness of life, it has taken me thebetter part of my existence to understand the significance of this contradiction.Books entered my life at a later period. When my father’s inheritance was divided, atthe time of his expulsion from the family home in Moka, in Mauritius, he managed toput together several libraries consisting of the books that remained. It was then that Iunderstood a truth not immediately apparent to children, that books are a treasure moreprecious than any real property or bank account. It was in those volumes—most of themancient, bound tomes—that I discovered the great works of world literature:
 DonQuijote,
illustrated by Tony Johannot;
 La vida de
 
 Lazarillo de Tormes;
the
 Ingoldsby Legends; Gulliver’s Travels;
Victor Hugo’s great, inspired novels
Quatre-vingt-treize, Les Travailleurs de la Mer,
and
L’Homme qui rit.
Balzac’s
 Les Contes
 
drôlatiques
, aswell. But the books which had the greatest impact on me were the anthologies of travellers’ tales, most of them devoted to India, Africa, and the Mascarene islands, orthe great histories of exploration by Dumont d’Urville or the Abbé Rochon, as well asBougainville, Cook, and of course
The Travels of Marco Polo
. In the mediocre life of alittle provincial town dozing in the sun, after those years of freedom in Africa, thosebooks gave me a taste for adventure, gave me a sense of the vastness of the real world, ameans to explore it through instinct and the senses rather than through knowledge. In away, too, those books gave me, from very early on, an awareness of the contradictorynature of a child’s existence: a child will cling to a sanctuary, a place to forget violenceand competitiveness, and also take pleasure in looking through the windowpane towatch the outside world go by.Shortly before I received the—to me, astonishing—news that the Swedish Academywas awarding me this distinction, I was re-reading a little book by Stig Dagerman that Iam particularly fond of: a collection of political essays entitled
 Essäer och texter.
It wasno mere chance that I was re-reading this bitter, abrasive book. I was preparing a trip to

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