J. M. G. Le Clézio Le Clézio, J. M. G. - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

J. M. G. Le Clézio 1940-

(Full name Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio) French novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Le Clézio's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 31.

Le Clézio achieved instant critical recognition when his first novel, Le Procès-verbal (1963; The Interrogation), published when he was twenty-three, received the prestigious Prix Théophraste Renaudot award. From that time on he has been regarded as one of France's major contemporary literary figures. His works often defy categorization and are not affiliated with any one literary or philosophical movement. Le Clézio's fiction frequently explores metaphysical questions, examining the nature of language as it describes and creates reality. Le Clézio also examines postindustrial life using both traditional storytelling styles and experimental narrative forms, which have proven to be both critically and commercially successful.

Biographical Information

Le Clézio was born on April 13, 1940, in Nice, France, to Raoul, a doctor of Mauritian descent, and Simone. Although Le Clézio was primarily raised and educated in France, he spent a portion of his childhood in Nigeria and England. He attended Bristol University and London University, and held a teaching position at the Bath Grammar School in England. He was awarded a license-ès-lettres degree from the University of Nice in 1963, a maîtrise from the University of Aix-en Provence in 1964, and a docteur-ès-lettres from the University of Perpignan in 1983. In 1963 Le Clézio published his critically-acclaimed first novel, Le Procès-verbal. In 1966 Le Clézio served a term of French military service by working as a teacher at the Buddhist University of Bangkok and the University of Mexico. He also spent four years living with Indian tribes in Panama, and has travelled extensively through North and South America and the Indian Ocean. A prolific author and educator, Le Clézio has continued to publish works and has lectured at Boston University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. In addition to the critical honors he received for Le Procès-verbal, Le Clézio has been awarded the Prix Valery Larbaud award from the Bibliotheque Municipale Valery Larbaud in 1972 and the Paul Morand literary prize from the Academie Française in 1980.

Major Works

Le Clézio's writing style has embraced both traditional narrative structures—particularly the quest or adventure story—and non-traditional, experimental forms. Both his fiction and essays address the devastating effects of urbanization on the natural world and the impact of colonial cultures on indigenous populations. His works also often examine issues of language and creativity. Le Clézio's protagonists are frequently uprooted, lonely drifters from Morocco, Central America, and other diverse locales, who struggle to discover their identities as they bounce from one geographical location to another. In Le Clézio's earlier works, his characters regularly meet grim fates, but in his later novels, his protagonists fare better, with many simply renouncing Western culture and returning to their homelands. In the short story collection La Fièvre (1965; Fever), the main characters wander numbly through modern metropolises, suffering from fevers that provide them with extrasensory perception and enable them to become acutely aware of the human misery that surrounds them. As their illnesses intensify the characters become surreally absorbed into their natural surroundings. Le Livre des fuites (1969; The Book of Flights) similarly focuses on characters in urban settings, including J. H. Hogan, who is questing for knowledge, but finds himself trapped in a limited and man-made environment. In another short story collection, La Ronde et autres faits divers (1982; The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts), Le Clézio's characters attempt to escape their bleak, postindustrial existences, but remain alienated due to the oppressive social order.

Origins and quests, exile and redemption, and colonialism and destruction figure prominently in Désert (1980), Onitsha (1991), Étoile errante (1992; which may be translated as Wandering Star), La Quarantaine (1995; which may be translated as The Quarantine), and Poisson d'or (1997; which may be translated as Golden Fish). Lalla in Désert, Esther and Nejma in Étoile errante, and Laila of Poisson d'or are each forced to leave their homelands against their wills. These young protagonists all experience geographical exile and embark on journeys which mirror their development towards adulthood. Twelve-year-old Fintan in Onitsha becomes part of a British colonial regime in an African city and deals with his feelings of exile as he adjusts to a new language and culture imposed on him by his father. Léon in La Quarantaine experiences isolation and loneliness while living in a quarantine camp on an island near Mauritius. All of these protagonists are desperate for a sense of identity, but despite their best efforts, they remain on the fringes of society. Each of them chooses to reject Western culture and the worship of materialism, deciding instead to return to the lands of their birth in an attempt to find a sense of self. While they wander in exile, Le Clézio's characters often write about their experiences. Le Clézio uses the acts of reading and writing in his narratives to explore the healing and educational powers of the written word. The novel Le Chercheur d'or (1985; The Prospector) and the short story “Awaite Pawana” also focus on journeys, but in these situations the quests are not forced: the characters in these works leave home as a result of their desire for financial gain. In Le Chercheur d'or Alexis follows his late father in search of gold, only to discover that achieving material success proves to be an empty and shallow experience.

Critical Reception

Le Clézio has been lauded by several critics for his expertise, storytelling skill, and prodigious imagination. His writings have proven popular with both readers and reviewers, with many of his works becoming best-sellers in France and abroad. Although some commentators have tried to place his prose style into the nouveau roman (“The New Novel”) literary genre, most critics agree that Le Clézio's diverse writing style resists classification. Le Procès-verbal has been praised for its unique portrayal of human sensory experience, although some reviewers have argued that the novel's themes are sterile and unoriginal. Le Clézio has been largely absent from the French literary scene—by his own choice—and a number of critics claim that this distance from his audience contributes to his mysteriousness which has only served to increase Le Clézio's popularity. His novels, in particular, have been noted for including autobiographical elements. His critics have complained that Le Clézio addresses the same basic ideas and characters over and over again in nearly all of his works and have claimed that his books offer little new material while focusing too heavily on Le Clézio's own life.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Le Procès-verbal [The Interrogation] (novel) 1963

La Fièvre [Fever] (short stories) 1965

Le Déluge [The Flood] (novel) 1966

Terra Amata (novel) 1967

Le Livre des fuites: Roman d'adventures [The Book of Flights: An Adventure Story] (novel) 1969

La Guerre [War] (novel) 1970

Les Géants [The Giants] (novel) 1973

L'Inconnu sur la terre (essays) 1978

Mondo et autres histoires (short stories) 1978

Désert (novel) 1980

La Ronde et autres faits divers [The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts] (short stories) 1982

Le Chercheur d'or [The Prospector] (novel) 1985

Printemps et autres saisons (short stories) 1989

Le Réve Mexicain ou la pensée interrompue [The Mexican Dream, or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations (essays) 1989

Onitsha (novel) 1991

Étoile errante (novel) 1992

La Quarantaine (novel) 1995

Poisson d'or (novel) 1997

La fête chantée, et autres essais de thème amérindien (essays) 1997

Hasard; suivi de, Angoli mala: romans (short stories) 1999

Coeur brûle et autres romances (short stories) 2000

Neal Oxenhandler (essay date 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Oxenhandler, Neal. “Nihilism in Le Clézio's La Fièvre.” In Symbolism and Modern Literature: Studies in Honor of Wallace Fowlie, edited by Marcel Tetel, pp. 264–73. Durham: Duke University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Oxenhandler attempts to define the nihilism found in the short stories of La Fièvre.]

We know more about nihilism than we like to think.

—W. J. Dannhauser, from a lecture

Si vous voulez vraiment le savoir, j'aurais ne préféré ne jamais être né.

—J. M. G. Le Clézio, Preface to La...

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Emile J. Talbot (review date winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Talbot, Emile J. Review of La Ronde et autres faits divers, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. World Literature Today 57, no. 1 (winter 1983): 62.

[In the following review, Talbot argues that the characters in La Ronde complement the characters found in Le Clézio's Mondo et autres histoires.]

Le Clézio previous collection of short stories, Mondo et autres histoires (1978), celebrated the attainment of a fresh intimacy with the universe by children who were able to bypass the confining world of modern urban life (see WLT 53:2, p. 249), but his latest collection, La Ronde, features characters whose efforts to escape lead only to defeat....

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Alan Roberts (review date winter 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Roberts, Alan. Review of Le Chercheur d'or, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. World Literature Today 60, no. 1 (winter 1986): 68.

[In the following review, Roberts asserts that Le Chercheur d'or is an enjoyable work if the reader can “accept the emotional wringing” of the central character, Alexis.]

Le Clézio's latest work, Le Chercheur d'or, falls into the category of a neoromantic novel, which may not appeal to today's public. Beautiful description of exotic lands, of travels on small nineteenth-century sailing ships to islands off the east coast of Africa, all overshadowed by the mystery of death, the cruelty of nature, and, above all, the...

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Dominic Di Bernardi (review date summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Di Bernardi, Dominic. Review of Printemps et autres saisons, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, no. 2 (summer 1991): 262–63.

[In the following positive review, Di Bernardi praises Printemps et autres saisons for reexamining the oft-addressed themes of nationalism and racial purity.]

J. M. G. Le Clézio's newest collection of short stories, Printemps et autres saisons, might be more accurately described as a novella and four stories, and more aptly titled “Five Young Women.” Writers commonly exploit images of the opposite sex as vehicles for examining broader themes. These narratives, all written in Le Clézio's...

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Marilyn Gaddis Rose (review date spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rose, Marilyn Gaddis. Review of Onitsha, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. World Literature Today 66, no. 2 (spring 1992): 304–05.

[In the following review of Onitsha, Rose focuses on Le Clézio's interest in non-Western settings.]

Once again J. M. G. Le Clézio, a novelist fascinated by the non-Western and an anthropologist respecting the Other, takes readers to a site that destroys Westerners; that is, the site either encourages their most egregious exploitative colonialism or puts them in the thrall of difference. The latter happens when the new non-Western environment casts a spell severing the Westerners from their own kind but keeping a barrier...

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Robin Buss (review date February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Buss, Robin. Review of Étoile errante, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4688 (February 1993): 13.

[In the following mixed review, Buss praises Le Clézio's development of the two central female characters in Onitsha, but argues that the novel's content is superficial.]

The blurb on J. M. G. Le Clézio's new novel says that it forms a pair with Onitsha, published in 1991; but, in reality, the filiation goes further back, to Désert, (1980), in which Lalla, a Moroccan girl, experiences the alienation of the city, conceives a child, loses the father in a banal accident and gives birth after returning to a more...

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Marilyn Gaddis Rose (review date summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rose, Marilyn Gaddis. Review of Étoile errante, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. World Literature Today 67, no. 3 (summer 1993): 585.

[In the following review of Étoile errante, Rose compliments Le Clézio's attempt to write about lesser-known historical events, but criticizes how Le Clézio “renders history through a young woman's puberty.”]

The star of the title Étoile errante refers to the key character, Esther, called Estrelitta by her father, who is thirteen when the chronicle begins in the Alpine foothills near Nice, fifty-two when the book ends. The story concludes in the same place where it began, since on the occasion of her mother...

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William Thompson (review date March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thompson, William. Review of Étoile errante, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. French Review 67, no. 4 (March 1994): 704.

[In the following review, Thompson offers a positive assessment of Étoile errante.]

There are two “wandering stars” in Le Clézio's latest novel, Étoile errante, two young women whose paths cross only once and for one brief moment which results in a solitary exchange of names on the blank page of a notebook. This chance encounter will, however, have a lasting, significant impact on both as the journeys of these two “stars,” Esther and Nejma, take radically different routes.

Esther, whom her father lovingly...

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Robin Buss (review date 10 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Buss, Robin. Review of La Quarantaine, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4858 (10 May 1996): 22.

[In the following review, Buss offers a generally positive assessment of La Quarantaine.]

When J. M. G. Le Clézio won the Prix Renaudot in 1963 with his first novel, Le Procès-verbal, and was acclaimed as the most promising new voice in French literature, the cultural establishment appeared to be playing one of its games. Here was the story of an outsider, an assault on the values of modern society; but with the inducement of a few plums, its talented author could probably be persuaded out of this stance of late-adolescent...

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John L. Brown (review date fall 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, John L. Review of La Quarantaine, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (fall 1996): 909.

[In the following review, Brown offers a positive assessment of La Quarantaine.]

From the start, J. M. G. Le Clézio has been considered a maverick, but a maverick of genius. In 1963, at the age of twenty-three, his first novel, Le Procès-verbal, received the Prix Renaudot. Since then, he has published some twenty-three works, of which La Quarantaine is the most recent. They take place all over the globe, from South and Central America (Le Clézio has a particular fondness for Mexico and has translated some ancient Mayan...

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Warren Motte (essay date fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Motte, Warren. “Writing Away.” World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (fall 1997): 689–94.

[In the following essay, Motte examines how Onitsha addresses the concept of the “mother tongue.”]

For many critics, J. M. G. Le Clézio's principal virtue as a writer is his ability to construct a novelistic landscape that is dramatically different from the real world of his readers, a deeply evocative, seductive “elsewhere” to which we travel on the virtual journey of his fiction.1 Such a technique is of course one of the privileged gestures of narrative, at least since Homer; yet in Le Clézio's texts it assumes a richly personal specificity...

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Bettina L. Knapp (essay date fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina L. “J. M. G. Le Clézio's Désert: The Myth of Transparency.” World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (fall 1997): 703–08.

[In the following essay, Knapp examines how the characters in Désert seem to randomly appear and disappear.]

The myth of transparency (Latin, trans, “beyond,” + parere, “to appear” or “show through”) lies at the heart of J. M. G. Le Clézio's 1980 novel Désert. The hallucinatory images or visions rising up as if from nothingness at certain junctures in the novel invite the reader to glimpse, but only briefly, a world of imponderables. Since ambiguity and mystery are the essence of myth in...

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William Thompson (essay date fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thompson, William. “Voyage and Immobility in J. M. G. Le Clézio's Désert and La Quarantaine.World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (fall 1997): 709–16.

[In the following essay, Thompson studies the two diametric themes of voyage and immobility by comparing Désert and La Quarantaine.]

I have often enjoyed embarking on a voyage with Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. In his fictional works, he has led his readers on an extensive and culturally rich voyage across the planet: to the islands in the Indian Ocean in Le Chercheur d'or and La Quarantaine, to West Africa in Onitsha, to North Africa, Europe, and even America in...

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Bruno Thibault (essay date fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thibault, Bruno. “‘Awaite Pawana’: J. M. G. Le Clézio's Vision of the Sacred.” World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (fall 1997): 723–29.

[In the following essay, Thibault explores the central themes in Le Clézio's lengthy short story “Awaite Pawana.”]

“Awaite Pawana” is a long short story of some fifty pages, published by J. M. G. Le Clézio in 1992, the very year of the commemoration of America's discovery by the Europeans. But in this text the mood of the author is not one of celebration: “Pawana” is an apocalyptic tale. It does not evoke the age of great discoveries but rather the closure of the “western frontier” and the systematic...

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William Thompson (review date fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thompson, William. Review of Poisson d'or, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (fall 1997): 748.

[In the following review, Thompson relates how Poisson d'or follows in the thematic tradition of Le Clézio's previous novels.]

Poisson d'or is the first-person account of a young North African woman, Laila, who is kidnapped and sold as a young child and who encounters in her journeys (through Africa, Europe, and America) a vast range of humanity, rich and poor, kind and cruel. Some mistreat and exploit her; others suffer and struggle like her. Midway through the text, Laila—the “golden fish” of the title—realizes...

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Jean-Philippe Imbert (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Imbert, Jean-Phillipe. “J. M. G. Le Clézio, Writer of Exile: A Treatment of Childhood and Exile in Désert and Étoile errante.” In Exiles and Migrants: Crossing Thresholds in European Culture and Society, pp. 201–11. England: Sussex Academic, 1997.

[In the following essay, Imbert analyzes the motifs of exile and childhood in Désert and Étoile errante.]

When the unaware reader embarks on Étoile errante,1 little does he realise that a decade earlier Le Clézio had undertaken a similar voyage when writing Désert,2 both books describing two departures into exile, two quests for self-discovery....

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Karen D. Levy (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Levy, Karen D. “Intersected Pasts and Problematic Futures: Oedipal Conflicts and Legendary Catastrophe in J. M. G. Le Clézio's Onitsha and Étoile errante.International Fiction Review 25, nos. 1–2 (1998): 36–49.

[In the following essay, Levy uses psychoanalysis and feminist theory to explore the protagonists's “fascination with the past” in Onitsha and Étoile errante.]

Since the publication of his first novel, Le Procès-verbal (The Interrogation, 1963), in which the protagonist Adam Pollo finds refuge from the aggressions of modern life in an asylum, J. M. G. Le Clézio has been exploring the wounds of the...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bre, Germaine. “The Fabulous World of J. M. G. Le Clézio.” In From Dante to García Márquez: Studies in Romance Literatures and Linguistics, edited by Gene H. Bell-Villada, Antonio Giménez, and George Pistorius, pp. 349–59. Massachusetts: Williams College, 1987.

Bre discusses how Le Clézio and his novels fit into contemporary French literature.

Cagnon, Maurice. “J. M. G. Le Clézio: The Genesis of Writing.” Language & Style 5, no. 3 (summer 1972): 221–27.

Cagnon utilizes Le Livre des fuites: Roman d'adventures to demonstrate how different Le Clézio's writing process is from Le...

(The entire section is 411 words.)