Le Clézio, J(ean) M(arie) G(ustave)
J(ean) M(arie) G(ustave) Le Clézio 1940–
French novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.
With the publication of his first work, La procès-verbal (1963; The Interrogation), Le Clézio emerged as one of the most provocative and promising young writers of contemporary French literature. Sometimes considered a descendant of such writers of the "Nouveau Roman" ("New Novel") as Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet, Le Clézio shares with these authors an interest in experimenting with literary form. Disordered narrative sequences, a repetitive, hypnotic attention to minute details, and a surreal montage of sensory perceptions characterize Le Clézio's fictional experiments. With little emphasis on plot or character development, Le Clézio's novels and short stories primarily recreate a feverish sense of anguish and alienation which he blames on the spiritual emptiness of contemporary society.
Critical reception to Le Clézio's work has been mixed. Although the publication of Le procès-verbal caused a stir in Parisian literary circles, many critics contend that Le Clézio's subsequent works have failed to fulfill the potential of his first novel. Critics commonly cite the repetitive themes, the obscure technical experiments, and the underdeveloped characters as elements which detract from the success of his fiction. However, he has been highly praised for his imaginative and impressionistic portraits of modern cityscapes.
The Virginia Quarterly Review
"The Interrogation" brilliantly explores human experience beyond the pales of conventional human relations and reason. Mr. Le Clezio subjects his cool protagonist to the trials of solitude and the quest for ontological fulfillment…. This abstrusely metaphysical quest in the French manner comes vividly alive through Mr. Le Clezio's artistry. His novel proves that extremism in the exercise of the imagination can be a virtue with an artist whose vision is deep and precise. Such qualities are indeed rare and in one of Mr. Le Clezio's age and experience something truly remarkable.
A review of "The Interrogation," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Winter, 1965). p. x.
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[The Interrogation] deals with a young man named Adam Pollo who lives alone in a house near the sea in southern France, walks, does not walk, talks to people, visits and is visited by a girl, but is in essence as solitary as the Crusoe who supplies the epigraph for his story. The novel traces his mental decline after his release "out of a mental home or out of the army"—much of it in interior monologues. But his retrogression is presented as contemporary heroic myth, not pathology, in a manner that implies the superiority of his withdrawals and distortions to the facts of life around him, that these withdrawals are indeed caused by the drabness and terror of the facts.
This of course is neither a new field for fiction nor a fresh view of contemporary society. The highhandedness of the young about the stupidities of the world they inherit is an ancient strophe, and the private purities of schizophrenia and paranoia are a latter-day mode of expressing it. LeClezio burdens himself with superficial trickeries—lines crossed out in the printed text, newspaper pages—but he has some gift of vision and an imagination that flies at the touch of a certain light, a view, a voice. If over-reaction were not the very tonality of his book, one could indict him for over-reacting. As it is, his novel—easily readable and sometimes poignant—fails simply by being insufficiently relevant to large concerns, a youthful paw at the universe...
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J. M. G. Le Clézio's first book, The Interrogation, was likened to La Nausée; and his work is clearly influenced by Sartre, as well as by Camus's L'Etranger and some of the so-called 'new novelists'. That's to say that he focuses with hypnotic intentness on objects, like the director of a Thirties documentary: by accumulating small, vivid, indifferent facts he induces a sense of daze and emptiness, turning us into sleepwalkers or drunks for whom visual trivia dwarf the world. In the nine stories collected in Fever, this mood often has objective pretexts—sunstroke, toothache, old age, oppressiveness of various sorts. But pretexts are what they are, excuses for the deployment of Le Clézio's special aptitude, for the imposition of his vision with its sad metaphysical (or anti-metaphysical) overtones. Brilliant, powerful, joyless, but not lacking a kind of alert humour in its sour juxtapositions, this isn't a book that opens new questions, as did those it derives from; but … it certainly grips.
Richard Mayne, "Forbidden Fruit," in New Statesman, Vol. 71, No. 1833, April 29, 1966, p. 622.∗
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[The following excerpt is from a translated essay, the original of which appeared in Le Nouveau Candide.]
It's certain that right now J. M. G. Le Clézio has no intention of striking out on a different path. His new novel, Le Déluge [translated into English as The Flood], repeats his favorite theme without let-up: loneliness in the crowd and the constant threat of death.
Up to page 46 a somber verbal flood carries everything along with it in a tide of bad days. "Men and women were no longer alone very much; they formed a crowd. And in that barbaric chaos you were lost." Yes, we are lost in this barbaric chaos where a confusion of images replaces style and thought. We glimpse the features of a city: its buildings, streets, advertising, cars. Maybe we are already dead. Somebody is getting hell ready for us.
But there is a faint glimmer of light amidst these shadows. On a January 25th, at 3:30, without any visible reason, a siren goes off. At the same moment we see a young girl appear on a motorbike. The girl rides off, disappears between two rows of houses. Immediately, the siren stops. "There was nothing left but silence. And nothing, nothing, not even a vivid memory will remain in our minds. Ever since that day everything has been rotting. I, François Besson, see death everywhere."
Why does the sight of a young girl...
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Le Clézio is an appealingly tedious writer; he has a knack for making you like him while he bores you…. What I admire in him is, in fact, what makes him rather tedious: his stubborn, solemn, and, until now, generally unsuccessful attempt to find the medium that will help him express (and discover) where his interest and talent as a writer lie.
This search for a form, a tone, a literary mode is only too visible in the nine stories of Fever…. (p. 4)
There is … something very unfeverish about the dogged, cerebral density of Le Clézio's descriptive writing. I find his descriptions generally far less suggestive of the immediacy of sensation than of an astonishing verbal virtuosity which Le Clézio either can't or won't direct and control. Images are confusedly piled up with what seems like the relentless, ponderous application of a schoolboy trying to outwrite the rest of the class. (pp. 4, 16)
But the main trouble with most of these stories is … that they set out to be stories and don't quite make it…. What's missing, in a variety of ways, is the distance that would make conflict—that is, drama—possible. For one thing, Le Clézio is apparently having trouble deciding what distance he himself should take from his stories. He occasionally substitutes himself for characters (as in "A Day of Old Age," when he addresses a fairly painful reminder of mortality to the reader), or,...
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In many ways ["Fever"] is a disappointing sequel to [J.M.G. Le Clézio's] first novel, "The Interrogation" …; disappointing because it is (intentionally or not) a sequel, and some of its inclusions strike one as rejected chapters from that earlier work. Variation on a theme is one thing. Repetition of form, language, point of view, character and so on is another. Eventually, even a talent as considerable as Le Clézio's can bore when its performance so seldom changes.
In a brief introduction to this book, Le Clézio calls his collection "nine tales of little madness." Actually, they are not tales at all; they are nine impressionistic renderings of the landscape of the imagination. They are concerned with a variety of sensations (fever, pain, fatigue, etc.) and with the ability of these sensations to transport the mind into ecstatic states of hyper-consciousness. At their best ("The Day That Beaumont Became Acquainted With His Pain," for example), they achieve a complete fusion of the psychological and the physiological aspects of sensory experience. At their worst ("Then I Shall Be Able to Find Peace and Slumber"), they remind one of a "consciousness-expanding experience" reported in The Psychedelic Review.
It is not external reality that Le Clézio explores. Rather, it is the internal reality of a free-floating consciousness, traveling through a timeless, spaceless universe of impressions. His characters are...
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The French "New Novel," although still an amorphous entity very difficult to define, is now old enough to have produced a second generation of exponents, among whom I would place [J.M.G. Le Clézio and Monique Wittig], who have been the most widely acclaimed young writers to appear during the last two or three years. La Fièvre, a collection of short stories written in the "New Novel" manner, is Le Clézio's second book….
M. Le Clézio and Mlle. Witting are, temperamentally, very different from each other, the former being very neurotic and, indeed, perhaps too overtly anguished to fit entirely into the "New Novel" pattern, the latter robust and commonsensical, in so far as a writer of this kind can believe in commonsense. Neither, however, tries to any extent to achieve objectification in created "characters"; both occasionally seem to be describing named people from the outside, but this is merely a way of avoiding the monotony or inaccuracy of saying "I" all the time. Their theme is the fluctuation of their own inner awareness, the mystery of identity, the impossibility of coinciding with being and, in this respect, they derive, of course, like a good part of the "New Novel," from Existentialist psychology. Each consciousness is, at once or successively, subject and object; it can only know itself as subject by turning itself into object; and then again, when an object is contemplated intensively, it surges back into, and...
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J. Mitchell Morse
Le Clézio is a phony, an imitator of second-rate and third-rate fashionable novels that once were avant-garde, a vendor of old experiments to the new generation. His pretentious incompetence [in Fever] offers nothing to compare with Roquentin's black root, much less with Malte's cannister lid. His foreword is embarrassing in its stale naiveté. Writing a book like Fever and sending it to a publisher is the literary equivalent of nailing two pieces of scrap lumber hastily together, spilling some paint on them, and sending them to an art gallery.
J. Mitchell Morse, in a review of "Fever," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XIX, No. 4, Winter, 1966–67, p. 676.
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In a time of permissive publishing, to end the world takes only ink and paper. Novel writing is the least expensive of handicrafts. Thus it costs next to nothing to bring before the reader's mind a giant affirmation of queer menace:
"Somewhere between earth and sky there oscillates a large, flattish object, its surface daubed with blood, apparently made of riveted and interlapping steel plates, sliding to and fro with each compression or expansion of their over-all mass, and yet very much all of a piece, easily liftable on some gigantic bar, like a curtain."
If you were making a film, and had to budget a few thousand dollars for Special Effects to fabricate one of these, you would think several times about its rhetorical necessity before writing the order. But if you're covering pages with words, you can conjure it up amidst 3,000 words about odd meteorological goings-on without taking thought at all.
Though "The Flood" exhibits considerable talent for metaphor, it is difficult to locate a passage that doesn't suffer, in this way, from encountering too little resistance. The budgetary resistance against which the film maker tests his notions isn't the only kind, of course, and has never been the operative kind for the writer unless his ambitions are defined by best-seller-dom. It's relevant to invoke it here because "The Flood" is more like a French film—Godard's "Alphaville," say—than it is like...
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Terra Amata's author is described as 'one of the most promising French writers of fiction to emerge since Camus,' and his earlier novels have been enthusiastically praised. Le Clézio's new novel, however, seems more like a product of despair, a sort of 'where do I go from here? Can I go from here?'
Chancelade is a small boy apparently determined to take from life all he can. His author uses the boy's projected life as a peg to which he can attach his own games and experiments. What we get, unfortunately, are incidents without purpose or sense…. In an attempt to fill the pages, Le Clézio ranges from chapters of sign language, Morse and straight incomprehensibility to theology, and questions (arbitrary and unoriginal): 'Do you like money? What will it be like a million years from now? Where is God? How will it all end?' He lists the human contents of a beach (twenty-nine names). Science fiction interrupts and we are treated to variations on a theme by Asimov and Clarke which evolve into mathematics….
[We] get a wooden dialogue. The narrative includes such felicities as butterflies which 'dart madly,' centipedes which have 'a thousand feet,' trees which stand 'peacefully,' nightingales with 'artificial cries' and potato bugs which make 'vain' excursions. And, despite his SF interest, Le Clézio can still write of the 'four corners of the sky.' Or was St Jerome playing tricks again? The book as a whole...
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Le Clézio's heroes have been described before now as the heirs of Meursault and Antoine Roquentin, and this is very plausible. The beaches of the Riviera correspond closely to those of Algiers, and all Camus's feeling for the poignant evanescence of natural beauty seems to have passed into Le Clézio, who first came into prominence just about the same time the elder writer was killed. The comparison with Sartre's first novel is justified by Le Clézio's characteristic preoccupation with the endless multiplicity and yet separateness of everything, the world being presented as full and over-full, a 'furious labyrinth, a great living, palpitating mass, like a giant body sprawling on the ground and living its thousand blended lives'. But whereas for Roquentin there was nothing but nausea in this cram-full earth, for Chancelade [the protagonist of Terra Amata] such plenitude induces easy ecstasies. Formally, Terra Amata is another womb-to-tomb history. It has its gimmicks—a love-letter in morse, a poem in Polish, the table of contents turning up in the last chapter but one. Most people would not recognise it for a novel, not even a 'new novel', unless the definition of that term be stretched to cover any writing which undertakes to divorce the novel from its bossy helpmate, social history, and remarry it to art.
John Hemmings, "Butyric Whiffs," in The Listener, Vol. 81, No. 2081, February 13,...
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"Terra Amata" carries its character, Chancelade, from cradle to the grave. Steps in this progress are marked by lyrical essays, punctuated with vapid conversation, Whitmanesque lists of names, words, events and cosmic ruminations. For the burden of the book is that man is born, lives and dies, and that his life is meaningless. He is pushed out by the generation that comes after him, he leaves no impress on the world; he ages before his life is fulfilled. Better not to have been born, etc.
These adolescent outpourings sound like cries of woe between bites of eclair. There is nothing in the novel to indicate that Chancelade is worth listening to. He has done nothing, suffered nothing, experienced nothing to make him worth our regard. Sure, life is bitter, brutish, short. It needs no simpering hero come from France to tell us this. But it is how he responds to this fact that gives us a measure of a man. With Chancelade you feel not so much that the world has failed him as that the salesman has not been able to get him the right color for his car.
Thomas Lask, "Man and His Woes," in The New York Times, April 3. 1969, p. 41.∗
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"Terra Amata" is a short novel with epic ambitions. It is about man's genesis, flowering, erosion and destruction. It is at once fastidiously intelligent, cool and moving…. [Le Clézio's] landscapes live—literally. The earth twitches, grimaces and weeps, and Le Clézio, with craft and cunning, manages to make such immoderate conceits acceptable to us. (p. 98)
Geoffrey Wolff, "1969—A Rich Year for the Novel," in Newsweek, Vol. LXXIV, No. 25, December 22, 1969, pp. 97-8, 99A, 99B.∗
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J. R. Frakes
Some books deliberately set themselves up as targets for critics bound by traditional "rules" of fiction and weary (often justifiably) of show-off experimentation with form, narrative line, characterization, denouement, resolution, etc. For these critics, "experimental" novels are usually messy, spiteful splurges of sophomorism masquerading as radical iconoclasm. Despite the acclaim for Le Clézio's earlier works (The Interrogation, The Flood, Terra Amata), The Book of Flights is such a target. Apparently shapeless, a hodge-podge of pseudo-lyrical meditations, typographical eccentricities, catalogues, guidebook descriptions, rhetorical questions, assertions of a snotty self, this "adventure story" is a model of skippability….
All this guff is easy to dismiss. Too easy, for The Book of Flights is not dismissable as faddish self-indulgence. Rather it is a horrifying vision of the unending war between system and chaos, of man fleeing from nihilism into ultra-nihilism, of motion itself as the only human action capable of sustaining life on this rotten planet—even if that life remains meaningless. Technically, the book will remind you of Baudelaire's Little Prose Poems and Rudolph Wurlitzer's threatening 1970 novel Flats. The extended sequences in the desert and in the leper-colony are much more than tours de force; they are masterful conceits that contribute to a stunning metaphor—"these pure, clear lines,...
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"The Book of Flights" continues, with increased daring, to deconstruct the novel within itself. Notably, it is interspersed with chapters called "Self-Criticism" in which the author calls into question his procedures, casts suspicion on his enterprise, points up the various sleights-of-hard and falsification of the act of writing.
Yet Le Clézio is a curious mixture of the new sensibility, with its intense self-awareness about the fiction-making process, and an older quest for a literature of presence, significance, plentitude and even innocence. At heart, he is a romantic, obsessed by "writing's abandonment of reality, loss of meaning, logical madness"—by the loss of a language having a full grasp on things.
Really, I think, he writes out of protest against the state of affairs recognized and accepted by Robbe-Grillet or John Barth, whose works insist upon the fictionality of fictions, their inherent inadequation to the phenomenal world, their status as a supreme game where the reader's engagement with the text is the true act of significance. Le Clézio recognizes the game, indeed he plays it with talent, but he wants it to lead him through to an esthetic of presence. He wants to have his self-criticism and his innocence both, to deconstruct literature and to make it, in full romantic fashion, serve as salvation. And this, I think, accounts for the smugness and moral stridency that sometimes characterize his work....
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James P. Degnan
J. M. G. Le Clezio's The Book of Flights—novel? anti-novel? oh well, to quote the blurb (by far the most interesting, and the only coherent part of Flights), "flight … not merely from the conventions of the novel" but "flight in time and space … from reality and the prison of self" and, well, you get the idea—is one of those awful collections of pretentious trash—e.g., of "free ranging meditations, exclamations," and so forth—that remind one of William Burroughs and Grove Press and the worst (not to mention some of the best) of Lawrence Durrell….
Flights concerns the flights—real? imaginary? what, after all, does it matter?—of Young Man Hogan, not John Hogan or Ben or Bill, just Young Man or "the person called Hogan." Anyway, Young Man does and says things in the course of Flights … which obviously constitute what the extraordinarily imaginative blurbist calls "metaphysical lyricism of great beauty." Once, for instance, "planting himself on his two feet." Young-Man-the-person called-Hogan, "tries to bend his shadow upward" (not downward, mind) "in the direction of the sun." Once, addressing the reader in a postscript to a chapter—a chapter that has absolutely nothing to do with water or glasses or bottles—Young Man says: "Nothing easier than pouring a little water from a bottle into a glass. Go on. Try it. You'll see." But, ultimately, it is in the...
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Barbara Probst Solomon
In his earlier novels "Terra Amata" and "The Book of Flights," Le Clézio developed a highly original brand of the plotless, characterless novel. In "War" he has a young female heroine, Bea B., wander through a maze of peace, war and the mess of modern cities. As we read Bea B.'s wonderful wide-eyed internal babble and her scraps of poetry, jottings and letters in a diary she carries in her air-travel tote bag, Bea B. becomes the perfect foil for the modern apocalypse she stumbles through…. Le Clézio is one of those Frenchmen who has spent much time, young, outside France (in Bangkok and Mexico City) and this experience may have helped him succeed in his central narrative device: as Bea B. wanders through a territory that is presumably Vietnam—and a permanent legacy of ten thousand years of war—at the same time she is emotionally walking through France and Europe. Le Clézio is marvelously agile in this fusion of France and the Third World.
Le Clézio's psychological perceptions of the emotional state one undergoes during a war—how people actually experience war—is extremely accurate and is, indeed, the true theme of this novel. What Le Clézio does is literally to smash the landscape around Bea B. in order to create an effect of total visual disorientation. Thus Bea B. herself is not fragmented, words are not fragmented, but everything around Bea B. is in disorder and what she sees and the way she sees it is what is...
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On first glance the constant interspersal of non-literary elements among the extensive fragments of a narrative might seem revolutionary; a closer reading [of Les Géants, published in English as The Giants,] destroys the illusion created by leafing through the book at random and leads to the sobering realization that Le Clézio has actually up-dated Orwell's 1984 by writing a pop version of Zola's Au Bonheur des dames. There is even a coherent plot of sorts to be extracted from among the jumble of public-relations slogans, there is a traditional exploitation of symbols, and a familiar and reassuring unity exists underneath the apparent chaos. For everything revolves around the department store of Hyperpolis, the scene for the futile efforts of Tranquillité to find an acquaintance who works at the Information Desk. While her quest fails, she does succeed in distracting another habitué of the emporium, Machines, from his fascination with shopping carts and escalators. Aroused from his torpor, he is tempted to set fire to the shopping center. This laudable enterprise results in his interrogation (Kafkaesque, as is fitting) by the ever-vigilant authorities (either the giants of the title or their servitors). All this time a third major figure, a wayward boy who goes by the name of Bogo le Muet, steadfastly refuses to speak, because he is afraid that by opening his mouth he will do like the others and give orders. Even the...
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["The Giants"] is thoroughly benign, an undeniably stylish but overlong and glib exhortation to the world to wake up and Be Free. It seems that those superannuated ogres, the hidden persuaders, are still at work, and they reappear here as the Masters of Thought or the Masters of Words, keeping us all down by thinking our thoughts for us. Le Clézio's call to arms against them has the form of a parable, though not much crystallizes from his indefatigable prose by way of a location or a narrative. We are in, or around, a brightly-lit cement dystopia called Hyperpolis, something like a giant supermarket full of shambling, zombie-like consumers. The few characters are so underdeveloped they are almost translucent and have whimsically parabolic names like Tranquility, Machines and Dumb Bogo, an urchin who is a kind of hero because he either can't or won't talk.
Not to talk in Hyperpolis is to be free, because it means you are no longer mouthing the thoughts fed into you by the omnipotent corporations and their advertising agents. But Le Clézio … writes too richly or blandly to endow Hyperpolis with the necessary unpleasantness, and his human figures are far too dim to be sympathetic. Actually, Hyperpolis hardly seems worth running away from. The translation, it so happens, is extraordinarily good—rather wasted on a lazy book such as this.
John Sturrock, in a review of "The Giants," in The New...
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Scrabbling forlornly about on the outside of The Giants—a novel whose truculent bloatedness is the result of over-doses of anti-roman steroids—is a clearer, thinner, and much more recognisably simple-minded fiction. Called, say, The Unhidden Persuaders, its thesis, that the human race is being bombarded by advertisements propagated by industrial giants and their agency hacks, who don't care that they're killing language, doesn't sound too original—it isn't—so it's not allowed to interfere too much with Le Clézio's inflationary restatement of Vance Packard's familiar threnody. Instead, we're shoved inside Hyperpolis and its Supermarket, a world of invading vocables, a landscape of signs, invented by the commercial and political Masters, in which a girl called Tranquillity and a trolley-supervisor called Machines vainly struggle (à la Orwell, you might venture to suggest) for personality and relationship. Naturally, when Machines lights a fire in the Supermarket (a damp squib of a try at burning down Hyperpolis) he's arrested. His hapless struggle against the Masters much resembles the fiction's own forlorn tussle with the modish appurtenances (slogans, computer programmes, poems for machines) that in this novel trample old-fashioned stuff like plot and character into submission. The 'hero' is Dumb Bogo, a youth who, depressed at what the Masters are doing to human speech, has given up words for the language of...
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Jennifer R. Waelti-Walters
[It] has become abundantly clear that Le Clézio's writings to date function as a cohesive whole. There are constant reflections, echos, and even direct references from book to book as well as within each volume, and successive works take up themes that have already been treated in order to develop them further or offer an alternative statement. (p. 159)
[The] works tend to go in pairs. The Interrogation and The Flood offer the poles of heat and cold, light and darkness while telling the same story of bewilderment, refusal, and flight from society by symbolic annihilation of man's faculties of comprehension. The Ecstasy of Matter and Terra Amata are the theory and practice of human life in Western Europe and hence complement each other totally. The attitudes and preoccupations of the first three novels come together in The Book of Flights, with its tale of repeated turning away, whereas the contrast between village and city established in this book provides the division and parallel which have marked the pairs since 1969. War shows the struggle against modern city life; and its parallel was to have been found in In Iwa's Country—the story of life with the Panamanian Indians. Similarly, The Giants has its partner in Journeys to the Other Side in which the overwhelming accumulation of consumer goods is exchanged for the seething possibilities of the natural world. And in...
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Emile J. Talbot
Unlike Pascal, the characters in J.M.G. Le Clézio's second collection of short stories [Mondo et autres histoires] are not frightened by the silence of infinite spaces. Rather, they seek it in the sea and the sky and find in it a cosmic freedom, a sense of belonging to the universe that is unfettered by the constraints of civilization. Jon, the boy of "La montagne du dieu vivant," who experiences the infinite most intensely atop a mountain in the company of a mysterious shepherd boy, feels only limitless solitude on his return to the world of men. For Le Clézio, man has regrettably narrowed the universe to fit his own needs and desires. His major characters, all of whom are children in this collection, feel the need to escape from such a limiting and confining world, and this forms the unifying theme of these stories (as well as an important theme of Le Clézio's entire fiction)….
Intimacy with the universe has provided [Le Clézio's young characters] with their salvation,… [but] their reintegration into the world of men can never be complete. As young mystics among men, they will continue to be the link between the human race and the universe.
Emile J. Talbot, in a review of "Mondo et autres histoires," in World Literature Today, Vol. 53, No. 2, Spring, 1979, p. 249.
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Patricia J. Johnson
Composed simultaneously, Le Clézio's volume of essays, L'Inconnu sur la terre, and his volume of short stories [Mondo et autres histoires] are facets of the same wish to lead the reader through words, into a parallel, wordless, primitive universe of spontaneous perception. The essays delineate these themes with clarity, the short stories create worlds in which these themes are immediately perceptible. (pp. 153-54)
[In L'Inconnu, Le Clézio's] point of view is that of a child, perhaps the child within all of us, who sees the universe surrounding him directly, without the interference of previous prejudices, of human knowledge. The world into which he leads the reader is a primitive one, forgotten by civilized man, but still the province not only of the child but of the poor and the very old, the timeless representatives of a humanity that expects nothing, that is simply there, open to the universe.
This deliberate choice of point of view causes Le Clézio to glorify the perceptions linked to primitive man: the world is a series of cycles, of unending repetition of day and night, where simple gestures (the making of bread, for example) and animal ruse are glorified at the expense of more civilized perceptions. He sees the philosophy and logic of contemporary civilization as opaque screens which prevent man from being really present in the world. Language, too, becomes divided between the primitive...
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Emile J. Talbot
Since … Le procès-verbal, J.M.G. Le Clézio has continued, through a dozen impressive works, to reaffirm his stature as one of France's great living novelists. Désert, lexically rich in its evocation of nomadic and desert life, yet clear and classical in its syntax, is certain to figure among his major novels and to enhance his reputation further.
Désert consists of two narratives which interrupt each other and which take place some seven decades apart. One is situated around 1910, when nomadic desert tribes were making a final attempt to resist colonial conquest. It is a tale of courage and honor which, given the inequality of the forces engaged, could end only in tragedy…. This narrative, which both opens and closes the novel, serves as a kind of epic Vorgeschichte to the other narrative, which is centered on the descendant of one of these proud, defiant soldiers.
Lalla's story is itself divided into two parts, the first of which, entitled "Le bonheur," relates aspects of her life as an orphan in a slum village on the edge of the desert…. The second part of her story, "La vie chez les esclaves," relates the degradation of her life in Marseilles, where she works as a cleaning woman in a seedy hotel…. In this young woman there lives enough of the pride and strength of her forefathers to flee enslavement, whatever its guise, for the freedom of the desert.
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Le Clézio's Désert joins that very limited number of contemporary French fictions that deal in a significant way with the relations between France and her former North African colonies. His first novel since Voyages de l'autre cote (1975), it represents a major addition to his already impressive literary production and is quite possibly his most esthetically satisfying achievement to date. The prolixity of his style has been reduced, and there remain virtually none of the self-consciously ingenuous passages that have previously marred some of his finest pages. (pp. 898-99)
Trois Villes saintes, published simultaneously with Désert, resembles the author's earlier Haï in being a lyrical meditation on certain aspects of various native cultures of the Americas. (p. 899)
Désert and Trois Villes saintes both provide striking new illustrations of many of the themes that have long characterized Le Clézio's writings: the contrast between modern civilization, with its dehumanizing and enslaving artifices, and those societies that are in closer accord with the natural order; silence and solitude, in both their positive and negative aspects; waiting, watching, and the mystical power of "le regard"; "la parole" and the evocative poetry of names; liberty and the rebellion by which it might be achieved. (p. 900)
Stephen Smith, in a review...
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