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.
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.
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.
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.