J. M. G. Le Clézio Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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,...

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Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Richard Mayne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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KléBer Haedens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


[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...

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Leo Bersani

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Page Stegner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Weightman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

J. Mitchell Morse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Hugh Kenner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Barry Cole

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Hemmings

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Thomas Lask

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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Geoffrey Wolff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Brooks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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James P. Degnan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Barbara Probst Solomon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Reinhard Kuhn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Sturrock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

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Valentine Cunningham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jennifer R. Waelti-Walters

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Emile J. Talbot

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patricia J. Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Emile J. Talbot

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Stephen Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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