Last October, the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to French novelist J.M.G. Le Clézio, the 13th French writer to win since the award’s inauguration in 1901 and the first to win since avant-garde novelist Claude Simon in 1985.  Some of the earlier French winners, such as Albert Camus, André Gide, and Jean-Paul Sartre (who, true to form, haughtily declined the 1964 award), remain well known here in the United States decades after their selections.  Others, like Anatole France (pen name for Jacques Anatole Thibault) and Roger Martin du Gard, were prominent in their day but are obscure figures now, ignored even in their native country.

The 69-year-old Le Clézio (the initials stand for Jean-Marie Gustave) is an interesting choice, and something of an improvement in Nobel terms, given the flagrant anti-American and anti-Western politicization of both the Nobel Literature and Peace Prizes in recent years.  On the Peace side there have been murderous kleptomaniacs like Yasser Arafat, preening fools like Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, and frauds like Kofi Annan, Mohamed al-Baradei, and Rigoberta Menchu.  On the Literature side the grand thinkers of the Nobel Committee have celebrated frothing anti-Americans like British playwright Harold Pinter (the 2005 winner) and tiresome moralists like Günter Grass, who won in 1999.  They have rewarded unregenerate communists like the Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek (2004), Portugese novelist José Saramago (1998), and Italian playwright and performance artist Dario Fo (1997), and others of unremarkable talent and imagination like Spaniard Camilo José Cela (1989) and Hungarian Imre Kertész (2002).  Pinter used the occasion of his acceptance speech to fulminate about the war in Iraq, his pointed comments making it clear that he didn’t like it and knew very little about it other than the fact that he despised the hated United States for starting it.

Le Clézio, by contrast, born in Nice of an English father and French mother, is a serious, imaginative writer with more than 30 books to his credit.  His debut novel, Le procès-verbal, published in 1963 when he was only 23, was awarded the Prix Renaudot, usually announced the same day as the vaunted Prix Goncourt and considered nearly its equal.  Known in English as The Police Report or The Interrogation, the book was unusual in form and style, noteworthy for passages crossed out and rewritten, pages seemingly missing, peculiar lists of wordplay and extranea, and a floating sense of both time and place.  At the time some critics sought to place him within the ranks of what were then called the French New Novelists, a small group that included Claude Simon, Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and several others, sometimes even Marguerite Duras.

Le Clézio, though, has proved difficult to pigeonhole.  Early on his novels, praised by American scholars and critics like Stanley Kauffman and Henri Peyre, Marc Slonim and Geoffrey Wolff, focused on protagonists navigating through nightmarish, shifting worlds of futuristic hazards, suspicious of such traditional aspects of everyday life as modern cities, traffic, advertising, and the media, yet not sure of what to expect next and how to adapt to it.  Subsequent novels, such as The Book of Flights and War, carried these and similar themes forward; it seemed natural, then, to define Le Clézio as something close to an avant-gardist, but he later evolved into a more traditional storyteller, still interested in placing his characters within a landscape, but increasingly scenes of a more formal and well-defined sort, less futuristic but now evocative of actual sites in Africa, Latin America, and France.  The setting of his 1991 novel Onitsha reflected his own early visits to Nigeria, where his father had once served as a British army surgeon.  Other novels have focused on the Middle East.  Often, his novels appear on French best-seller lists, as with his most recent, Ritournelle de la faim, brought out late last year by his long-time publisher Gallimard, a prominent literary house.

There seems little of the pompous blowhard to this unusual, somewhat retiring writer, a welcome development in recent Nobel Literature history.  Le Clézio has demonstrated, in many of his books, his humanity and empathy as a writer, something Pinter never did and Peace Laureate Menchu tried to fake.  (It was later revealed that she falsified large parts of her own memoir.)  There is little warmth in the grim, bitter stories of Elfriede Jelinek or the more formal and culturally ingrown narratives for which Cela and Kertész are known.  With Le Clézio, there is ample evidence of his firsthand knowledge of other cultures but, happily, little to suggest that he hates his own.

Some early Le Clézio novels were given excellent translation into English by Simon Watson Taylor and published in the United States by Atheneum, a literary imprint that no longer exists.  After that, the arbiters of literary taste seemed to feel that Le Clézio, even with his critical and commercial success in France, was a writer who wouldn’t translate or travel well, so subsequent novels have remained unavailable in the United States.  This is similar to the silent treatment given Patrick Modiano, the 1978 Prix Goncourt winner and best-selling novelist whose style is much more straightforward than Le Clézio’s and whose peculiar, cerebral stories of characters searching for elusive parts of their past should be appealing to some part of the American audience.  Yet both of these intriguing novelists remain largely unread by Americans.

It would be a welcome development should some enterprising American publisher with an interest in France conclude that Le Clézio—and Modiano along with him—are writers with something to say and styles that bring their respective narratives to life, worthy of an American audience without feeling the need to condescend to it.  It is high time that such serious foreign writers be published here even if they don’t play the anti-American card for the intelligentsia.