Introduction

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 219

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...

(The entire section contains 10400 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this J. M. G. Le Clézio study guide. You'll get access to all of the J. M. G. Le Clézio content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Critical Essays
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 106

"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.

Stanley Kauffmann

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 296

[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 instead of the intended tragic embrace. The tragedy soon wears away into self-consciousness and we are left with a series of attitudes substantiated, partly, by a vivid talent. (p. 21)

Stanley Kauffmann, "Novels from Abroad," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. III, No. 2, January 14, 1965, pp. 20-1.∗

Richard Mayne

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 176

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.∗

KléBer Haedens

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595

KLÉBER HAEDENS

[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 accompanied by the whine of a siren suddenly cause the world to rot, why does her disappearance plant death in the brain of a young man twenty-seven years old? That is J. M. G. Le Clézio's secret….

As for the novel's characters, François Besson is not much better than an animal. He seems to be deficient in both will and reason…. This silly and feeble individual gives rise to such boredom that to follow him in his activities is real torture. The landscape he traverses and the people he meets are cut to his measure. (pp. 378-79)

Le Clézio seems to lose himself in his dramatis personae and wallow in their unfathomable blues. "No one is sick longer than he wants to be," said Montaigne. The author of Le Déluge and his heroes have decided to be sick day and night until death overtakes them. The weak spark of existence that animates them gets lost in the crowd, and they sink into the verbal dough in which the novel holds them captive. The deluge that destroys them consists of words….

Failure, despair, suicide, death: Le Clézio doesn't seem capable of talking about anything else. Even though I felt there was a generous portion of the literary in all this, it began to bother me….

[What] life is to Le Clézio [is] a zero, and the whole book is just a morose translation of this nothingness. (p. 379)

What to do about it? To walk for hours in the rain, sit on benches, wander in the night, drink water from public fountains and wait. Le Clézio shows himself at his best in delineating this program. He hasn't lost the gift of making us see things: the street at dawn, the shopwindows, women shopping, the wind, the rain, the big yellow dog that gets killed at the cross-roads. But all this was already present in Le Procès-Verbal, and with much more energy, more spontaneous richness. Le Déluge is an unnecessary repetition. (pp. 378-79)

Kléber Haedens, "A Flood of Words," in Atlas, Vol. 11, No. 6, June, 1966, pp. 378-80.

Leo Bersani

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610

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, more frequently, he tries weakly to be casual about them by pretending not to be sure what's happening to them. He also gives us only the briefest glimpses into the psychological distances separating characters from one another; not one story has at its center an interesting relationship. Finally, the moment of fever often has no history. What provoked it is either obscure or unconvincing, and characters have almost no reality outside their hallucinations, in spite of Le Clézio's scrupulously naming everyone who appears and even dropping hints (which will interest you as little as they do Le Clézio) about the rest of his characters' lives….

There are, however, some successes in this collection. I liked especially the first half of "Fever" (the vagueness of the wife's role spoils the rest of the story), the impressionistic portrait of nature in "The World Is Alive," and "The Day That Beaumont Became Acquainted With His Pain." "Beaumont" is by far the best story in Fever, and this is largely because the metaphorical extravagances never become completely detached from the very clear, located reality of a toothache…. [In] conclusion I should say that a certain talent for dialogue appears each time we have someone nagging someone else. Beaumont's call to Paule, Adam Pollo trying to make Michèle talk about the time he raped her in Le Procès-Verbal, and Joseph's stubborn curiosity about what the old woman is seeing as she sits dying are all effectively uncomfortable scenes of characters hammering away at the resistance of others. The stubbornness is awful but oddly appealing, and it dramatizes, in a human relationship, the less appealing obstinacy of the descriptive passages in which Le Clézio mauls a scene metaphorically until he becomes what he sees. Characters occasionally provide the resistance and the discipline lacking when Le Clézio is, so to speak, on his own. I don't know how bright a future such a limited talent promises. For the moment, Le Clézio himself is nagging away at a literary medium in search of an answer, and this makes for a touching if not an always absorbing spectacle. (p. 16)

Leo Bersani, "Inside Tales," in Book Week—The Washington Post, July 10, 1966, pp. 4, 16.

Page Stegner

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 399

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 merely transformers for sensations produced by the tactile world….

Often Le Clézio's narrators attempt to transcend time and space and achieve a union with the infinite reality, God, by merging themselves with the animal, vegetable, mineral objects of their contemplation. Like Renaissance men in reverse, they descend the great chain of being. In so doing, they produce some fantastic transformations of their physical surroundings; but ultimately, after the fourth or fifth story, this all becomes too much, too relentless, too repetitious….

In spite of these objects there is much in Le Clézio's collection that is arresting and absorbing….

In all of the stories, the author's verbal felicity is amazing. Even if wearied by the repetition, we come away awed by his skill in manipulating language and dazzled by his ability to create with words vividly impressionistic paintings. His greatest achievements are rhetorical. He deserves to be read for this reason, if for no other.

Page Stegner, "A Little Madness," in The New York Times Book Review, July 31, 1966, p. 5.

John Weightman

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

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 swamps, the subject…. Le Clézio is so convinced that the drama of the consciousness's relationship with itself is the central problem for the writer that he looks upon the traditional literary genres as out-of-date devices corresponding to mistaken concepts….

Literature becomes, then, the meandering monologue, or internal dialogue, of the subjective-objective consciousness. (p. 24)

[Le Clézio tries], with naive honesty, to extend the description of the alienated consciousness that was already carried a long way in Sartre's La Nausée and Camus's L'Etranger. His "New Novel" aspect is that he disregards all social and political problems and fills a good deal of space with dogged enumerations of physical details, as if the only thing the consciousness can do in certain moments of stress is to relieve the ache of its anonymous void by close attention to the discrete particulars of the external world…. By "fever," Le Clézio means more or less the same thing as Sartre's "nausea," i.e., contingency sickness, the vertigo which arises from persistent contemplation of the central point of non-comprehension. Now and again, there are hints that the vertigo might suddenly turn into ecstasy, as if the nothingness of the creature might be unexpectedly transformed into fullness through communion with God. But these mystic intimations are slight and, in any case, are not accompanied by any metaphysical comment…. [However, Le Clézio's] writing is, as yet, on the verge of the clinical, as if he were just managing to hold in check some serious psychic disturbance which may have more to it than Existentialist nausea. Hence, as one reads him, a strong impression of claustrophobia, which combines with the usual, oppressive solipsism of the "New Novel." But he is undoubtedly a talent with remarkable possibilities. (pp. 25-6)

John Weightman, "The Indeterminate I," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. VII, No. 9, December 1, 1966, pp. 24-6.∗

J. Mitchell Morse

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 107

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.

Hugh Kenner

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 673

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 a novel.

It's film that has created the fashions on which J.M.G. Le Clézio relies for his effects: apartment-house facades, loudspeakers, graffiti; squeal of tires, uproar of jet engines; a boy obsessed with a pinball machine; a man listening to a tape-recorded suicide; a man waking next to a woman and examining her sleeping body with detached intentness.

The continuity—12 days in the life of Francois Besson—is preceded by an equivocal apocalypse that delivers the urban world into a universe of non-meaning, and followed by an equivocal eternity of blackness in which the ordinary carries on…. The literal cause of the blackness is that Besson has burned out his retinas by staring at the sun. A thousand verbal curlicues admonish us, however, not to be so square as to focus on the literal….

[Has Besson been attempting to] live a meaningful life, presumably? But, if so, it's no surprise that he can't. He's been acting, we can only believe, at the whim of the writer, in the course of this protracted fictional doodle. For what metaphysic can we extract from a doodle? Only that the pencil seeks its own amusement, in pursuit of little local virtuosities.

The authority of the camera, that's what's lacking: the stubborn resistance of the real, of faces and bodies asserting their identity through whatever arbitrariness of scripting and editing. Dimly at Mr. Le Clézio's shoulder stands some such wraith as the Godard of "My Life to Live," a film whose 12 episodes triumph over such dialogue as "Life is … life" and "I wish I were someone else" and "The more you talk, the less it means." Godard's episodes are even better served by such dialogue than they would be by more resonating language, precisely because we can see bodies, faces, clothes, movements, rooms, cars, a city: all real. In "The Flood," because it is a book, all reality is dissolved into words, words. (p. 4)

The arc of a man's passion, exactly that, is what we miss in "The Flood." Through the words, as in Beckett, we discern the airless humdrum. But behind the words, as not in Beckett, we detect not a disciplined sensibility, with a point of view about the airless humdrum and about the nature of the obligation to describe it, but simply a young Midas, a Midas enabled by syntax and by the dictionary to create fashionable vistas inexpensively, at the touch of the pen. Feats of creation, feats of annihilation, ought to be harder than he makes them look. (p. 40)

Hugh Kenner, "Twelve Days to Despair," in The New York Times Book Review, January 28, 1968, pp. 4, 40.

Barry Cole

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 289

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 seems to be the work of a fine and talented writer desperately trying to make up for a false start. Unfortunately, he rarely gets beyond second gear.

Barry Cole, "Jerome at Work," in The Spectator, Vol. 222, No. 7336, January 31, 1969, p. 142.∗

John Hemmings

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 230

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, 1969, p. 216.∗

Thomas Lask

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 203

"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.∗

Geoffrey Wolff

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 75

"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.∗

J. R. Frakes

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 238

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, this wordless transparency, this truth transmuted into landscape."

J. R. Frakes, in a review of "The Book of Flights: An Adventure Story," in Book World—The Washington Post, January 9, 1972, p. 2.

Peter Brooks

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

"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. (p. 6)

Le Clézio sometimes reminds one of Godard in his creation of a certain poetry of the banal from the overwhelming clutter of the contemporary landscape, including the static of a zapped-out language. At his best, Le Clézio is ever the master at rendering existence at the level of sensation with a daring and admirable freshness of language. He conveys in many strong passages a feeling of "material ecstasy" ("L'Exstase Matérielle," he called his book of essays), a joyful penetration into the heart of things. But he lacks Godard's cool. There is too portentous an insistence that we must see, must react. We have become somewhat jaded about alienating cityscapes, hallucinatory highways and the daily apocalypses of contemporary consciousness. Le Clézio's mode is in fact perhaps too insistently the apocalyptic, which points once again to an unacknowledged disjuncture between his sophisticated suspicion of literature and his essentially romantic commitment. (pp. 6, 34)

[There] are parts of this book that are very moving.

Yet I find something ultimately self-deceptive about his writing. For all his elaborate self-consciousness about the novel, literature and language, he is not finally searching for a further expansion in our awareness of the fiction-making process—in the manner of Borges—but for a para-literature and para-language which would be adequate to the immediacy of experience and would restore our freshness of vision and response. He proclaims the futility and terminal illness of literature—only to make, surreptitiously, the highest claims for his form of it. This comes close to self-righteousness. (p. 34)

Peter Brooks, "Para-Literature, Para-Language, Para-Novel," in The New York Times Book Review, January 30, 1972, pp. 6, 34.

James P. Degnan

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361

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 "metaphysical lyricism" of his remarks on the nature of writing and of literature that Mr. (Young-Man-the-person) Le Clézio hits that thing you dread to see him hit—his stride. Writing a book, he informs us, is the same thing—not a thing analogous to—but the same thing as "contemplating the slow sprouting of a dried bean in an earth filled jam jar" or of brushing your teeth. Had he chosen to do either of these, he tells us, he would not have had to write Flights, since he would have been doing exactly the same thing as writing Flights. One can only wonder: why didn't he?

James P. Degnan, in a review of, "The Book of Flights," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Summer, 1972, p. 334.

Barbara Probst Solomon

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598

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 happening. The one thing Bea B. holds on to—with an almost fanatic desperation, as though it is her last possession on earth—is the specificity of words, the exact naming of places and objects.

The visual distortions created by modern war are quite literally overwhelming and Le Clézio is both right and stylistically brilliant when he has Bea B. madly search for signposts in her efforts to locate herself. (p. 5)

Le Clézio's real strength lies ultimately in his lyrical descriptions of Bea B.'s thought processes and the world she moves through….

When, toward the end of the novel, after the world has entered into a state of total war, Bea B. utters her plaintive final cry—"I myself am not really sure I am born"—we believe in her enough to wish Le Clézio had not resorted to the use of names as cold as Bea B. or Monsieur X. For Le Clézio appears to be somewhat afraid of his emotions and his own humanity. At those moments he speeds the novel up so much—backing off into film and collage effects—that he loses the reader unnecessarily. Yet if Le Clézio lacks the sober total vision of Claude Simon or the ultimate power to move of Jorge Semprun, he is still one of the most powerful and daring of the young French writers. By the end of the novel, he has managed to create a new Fourth World that combines the shiny airport look of American Europe with the wreckage of Third World battlefields throughout the centuries. Bea B. has become the victim of a life lived in the bruised landscape of permanent modernity and permanent warfare. And we can see that despite the occasional flaws of his book Le Clézio has altered the form of the novel for traditional and authentic reasons: the old forms no longer serve to express his modern experience. (p. 34)

Barbara Probst Solomon, "Only the Words Intact," in The New York Times Book Review, July 15, 1973, pp. 4-5, 34.

Reinhard Kuhn

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

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 style of the novel has its old-fashioned aspects which emerge like vestiges of a past cultural tradition so strong that despite his efforts the author cannot divest himself of its ruins…. Every feature of this book, whether literary or extra-literary, is an assault on the intelligence and the senses designed to force the reader to carry out the author's design. The fundamental flaw is that the propagandistic techniques which the author employs to urge the reader to incinerate Hyperpolis are the ones which were used to create it. The author neglected to imitate the exemplary behavior of Bogo le Muet, with the result that he does give orders. It is as if an opponent of brain-washing were to try to eliminate it by brain-washing its potential victims. So, in a very profound sense, this book is not a novel but an advertisement. The medium is the message and at the same time a contradiction of the message. For this reviewer, who does not like to have his mind manipulated in the service of any cause, be it for the conflagration of a department store or for fire prevention, there is the temptation of the simple response: il faut brûler "Les Géants," but by proffering such advice he would be emulating Le Clézio rather than Bogo. (pp. 799-800)

Reinhard Kuhn, in a review of "Les Géants," in The French Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 4, March, 1975, pp. 799-800.

John Sturrock

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 245

["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 York Times Book Review, November 23, 1975, p. 22.

Valentine Cunningham

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 265

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 pebbles and suchlike dazzling communicators. It does make an odd shift, however, this blaming all human speech, and urging the virtues of word-smashing dictionary-burning, and pebble-fancying just for the iniquities of some of language's practitioners.

Valentine Cunningham, "Native Daughter," in New Statesman, Vol. 90, No. 2332, November 28, 1975, p. 686.∗

Jennifer R. Waelti-Walters

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1635

[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 both the mind leaves the ordinary thinking plane. In the first case under the influence of the subliminal messages broadcast in Hyperpolis the movement is induced by others. In the second case NajaNaja teaches her friends to control their own minds in such a way that they can escape the restrictions of reality for a more universal plane whenever they wish. Simultaneously, Journeys to the Other Side provides the missing complement to The Book of Flights. The latter showed physical and geographical flight while the former explores mental and cosmic escape through the power of the imagination—a solution used tentatively at the beginning of Le Clézio's career in The Interrogation and The Ecstasy of Matter.

Throughout the work the protagonists are dominated by two major influences: the sun and the sea—or occasionally water in some other form. The sun brings understanding, an understanding of things which are sometimes too painful to withstand; thus man tries to escape what the light forces him to see. But everything is focused on the sun; for Le Clézio all man's thought and hence the structures he establishes are created around it, for it is the source of revelation. It is reality. (pp. 159-60)

The complementary influence is water, and it is not surprising to find that the women in Le Clézio's books are often found close to water. Chancelade and Adam both make advances to girls on the beach, and both fail to understand them. In The Book of Flights a woman is identified with a river; in The Giants Tranquilité and her friend drown; and finally NajaNaja walks on the water into the sunset, thus linking both images and providing an absolute contrast to François Besson crawling out to the end of the breakwater at the height of the storm. Besson seems to be trying to escape from his life and from the sort of relations with women where his security is constantly threatened; indeed, he is attempting to return to the womb. NajaNaja is the total opposite to the struggling image of rejection offered by Besson. She controls her environment; she has mystery, youth, beauty, flexibility, competence; she commands love and allegiance and seems to have power over all of life and death. Le Clézio gives her the attributes of the archetypal woman. (p. 161)

Solitude, alienation from society, its people and values, and travel in Asia and South and Central America where alternative philosophies can be found have brought Le Clézio along a path very similar to the one he traced in the work of Henri Michaux at the time when his own body of work was embryonic. The cohesion that exists between Le Clézio's critical work and his creative writing is striking. Everywhere we find the same choice, war or flight, imposed by a fundamental isolation rooted in fear; this is shared by Lautréamont, Artaud, and Michaux, to whom … Le Clézio is drawn. For all of them writing is a safety valve protecting them more or less effectively from madness. Drugs and travel are used as means of escape and revelation. Each writer is concerned with the expression of his own deep feelings and his need to communicate them to others. This need for communication creates a profound struggle in the writers, owing to each one's alienation from his fellows, and produces a language of unusual violence coupled with a certain hermeticism. (p. 162)

That Le Clézio's struggle is a personal one manifests itself, in the early novels at least, by the fact that his characters are very alike and that each of the young men is similar in a number of respects to Le Clézio himself. They are all alternative statements of the same thing. Indeed, the juxtaposition of alternatives is a technique the author uses at all levels and, in particular,… [there is] the instability of his subject pronouns at all times. Narration moves frequently from "I" to "you" to "he" without any apparent motivation—a technique which both alienates the reader and forces him to share the alienation of narrator and protagonist very intimately. The novels have little or no plot, and in many cases the sections within a book have no apparent order. Usually they are made up of a series of situations which illustrate a given theme from different angles. These can be complementary or contradictory, developing the theme further or offering another possibility, a different interpretation. The effect is that of a number of tableaux rather than of continuous narration. Each book is complete in itself and yet is linked to the other works by a system of recurrent detail, repetition of images, new or further treatment of themes and problems. Hence all Le Clézio's writings are woven together into a single growing structure in which each strand reinforces the others, and adds to their combined impact and power. (pp. 165-66)

Against society Le Clézio pits the forces of the natural world, and, above all, the elements. He is a relentless observer of the world around him, with the patience to record minute details, long sequences of phenomena, actions, and the gift to transpose what he has seen into words with extraordinary realism. It has been suggested that his evocations of heat are the most telling in the whole of French literature, and it is certainly true that he excels in the creation of "set-piece" descriptions: a storm at sea, a rainy night, and so on. His books are permeated by atmospheric conditions, overwhelmed by consumer goods and modern building. This is his universe. The only objection that can be made is that sometimes the author seems to be fascinated by the flow of his own sentences, and his effects then lack a conciseness which would increase their force.

In his personal explorations he has pushed beyond the usually accepted bounds of the novel into a realm of lyric reflection in which fiction, philosophy, and poetry are combined. It is no wonder that frequent references are found to pre-Socratic philosophers both in Le Clézio's writing and that of his critics. Like them Le Clézio is trying to describe the universe, and his cosmic prefaces and epilogues are but the more extreme of his attempts.

In many ways he reminds us of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Both are intensely personal writers, consummate stylists, mystics making pertinent social criticisms, observers of nature in all its forms. Both reveal acute problems in their personal relations with other people and with women in particular. It is partly the result of each one's need to be accepted that they write copiously.

Given these resemblances, it would seem proper to end this study with two well-known quotations from Rousseau. Le Clézio's treatment of these statements is very different from that of his predecessor, but the criticisms contained in them sum up his attitude very well: "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." "Everything is good when it comes from the hands of the author of all things; everything degenerates in the hands of man." Le Clézio indicts modern society, its growth and values, and shares with us his attempts to resist its pressures. He sees life as a period of uncertainty, movement, change between birth and death which both lead out into darkness. His is a totally relative universe where particles swirl, combining and dividing in a constant shift, and where matter may assemble in the shape of man for a short time—this is the result of modern science. Simultaneously, Le Clézio is a humanist of sorts. He believes that man, thus formed, should take responsibility for his context. He should remain as closely tied as possible to the other natural formations around him, for through them he can come to know himself perhaps. The man-made elements of the modern world prevent him from doing this—they alienate him from matter and therefore from himself, who is matter also. Le Clézio's work is one long attempt to deal with alienation and the accompanying diminution of the individual. By his way of writing he forces us to share and come to grips with his situation and therefore our own. He is a man of our time, and his writing is a valuable addition to the corpus of available experience. (pp. 166-67)

Jennifer R. Waelti-Walters, in her J.M.G. Le Clézio, Twayne Publishers, 1977, 180 p.

Emile J. Talbot

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 224

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.

Patricia J. Johnson

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

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 and the civilized: musicality of language is linked to the child (Le Clézio quotes, approvingly, the Spanish song "Golondrinas," which consists of only one repeated word, the Spanish word for "swallows"), whereas he rejects as part of the encumbering civilization logical communication by words….

In his attempt to include language within the world of spontaneous perception while removing it from the world of adult civilization, Le Clézio makes words into animate entities. They become in several essays insects which burrow and hide, animals, and even children…. Non-verbal communication is glorified, the smile becomes a primeval means of contact, and the glance of another person (preferably that of a woman, child, or old man) conveys a wordless secret which surpasses any possible linguistic interaction.

Searching for the basic life source within the human being (most often symbolized by light or the sun), Le Clézio frequently reverts to the Romantic theme of évasion. Both essays and short stories reveal … a yearning for experience and communication on a non-rational level. Roads, busses, clouds, the sea with its cargo ships, all become suggestions of the urge to become united with the "azur" of the sky, the "bleu libre de la mer." At the end of this quest is the elemental silence, the ultimate unification with the universe…. (p. 154)

The volume of short stories, containing seven stories in addition to the title story, recreates this quest with, for the most part, children as central figures. Their names are deliberately nonrealistic—Mondo, Lullaby, Jon, Juba—and the location of the stories seems equally indeterminate. One has vaguely the feeling that some stories may be taking place in Africa, some in the south of France, and some seem clearly linked with Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America. Le Clézio's favorite locations for communication with the universe form the background for many of these nouvelles: abandoned houses and gardens, casemates returning to nature, rocks overlooking the sea, and the primitive world of desert and pastures. At one with this universe, his child-heroes (he calls them "enfants-fées") know spontaneously the secret of communication with the natural world, a secret lost to the world of adults.

Obviously, the use of words to communicate non-verbal feeling and non-logic, to glorify primitive life forces over civilization, creates a tension in both volumes, a tension which Le Clézio sometimes exploits to his advantage …, but which can lead to both repetition and wordiness. Each of the children in the short stories describes what he has just seen as the most beautiful thing he has ever seen; each natural element becomes in its turn the only god. The essays seem to circumvent this problem successfully, whereas one has the distinct feeling that one is reading the same short story over and over, with only incidental changes of names and scenery. What is most noticeably missing here is the humor of much of Le Clézio's early work. In these volumes, Le Clézio appears dead serious about his child-heroes; the reader may find it somewhat difficult to share this viewpoint. (pp. 154-55)

Patricia J. Johnson, in a review of "L'Inconnu sur la terre" and "Mondo et autres histoires," in The French Review, Vol. LIII, No. 1, October, 1979, pp. 153-55.

Emile J. Talbot

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 328

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.

The refusal of subjugation in Désert is part of a desire to live in reverent contact with nature in spite of the hardship it sometimes brings…. Désert, which postulates the greatness of primitive peoples, not because they are good in a naïve Rousseauistic sense but because they are close to nature and its elements, may also be considered as a poetic inquiry into man's relationship with the cosmos.

Emile J. Talbot, in a review of "Désert," in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring, 1981, p. 270.

Stephen Smith

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 226

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 of "Désert" and "Trois villes saintes," in The French Review, Vol. LIV, No. 6, May, 1981, pp. 898-900.

Illustration of PDF document

Download J. M. G. Le Clézio Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Next

Le Clézio, J. M. G.