J.M.G. Le Clézio Talks the Common Good (and Other People’s Books)

Ayşegül Sert in Conversation with the Nobel Laureate

AS: How did winning the Nobel Prize change your life?

JMG: I reimbursed my debts! It allows you time—time to write without the worries of everyday life. It’s a literary award, it certainly helps writers, but it shouldn’t be just a label. I avoid labels. What particularly moved me was to meet the other laureates who are extremely interesting people. The day of the ceremony, we lined up by the chronological order in which the particular domain was included in the Academy—and I was telling Paul Krugman to go before me because after all in the world we live in economy always comes before literature!

AS: 2008 was symbolic as the year of the financial crisis. You had some disagreements with Krugman as you denounced the Western-centered perception of the world.

JMG: I don’t wish to criticize economy, it is not my field of expertise, but it saddens me that economists are usually indifferent to the three quarters of the world that do not live under the same economic system as theirs. I remember that there was a sort of brainstorming session with several laureates and the question was: how to survive the crisis? 

I said that more than the majority of the planet has been living in a state of crisis for decades—I mean these people don’t know if they can feed themselves and their family the next day, they don’t know if they will have access to water, they don’t know how to solve the issue of crime and violence impacting their communities—and you ask us what to do about the financial crisis? The Nobel Prize in Medicine winner shared my point of view but to be honest we were just two revolted souls and we were both French so the others probably thought: Ugh, those French!

AS: Did Bob Dylan’s 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature surprise you?

JMG: I don’t understand why it was such a polemic. Literature can be chanted. Bob Dylan’s texts are beautiful. I was happy to see that the Swedish Academy, which has a tendency to refrain itself from awarding Americans, gave it to an American. Toni Morrison is also a remarkable writer who brought a strong message to the United States that really needed that message, but I do not fully agree to solely consider her as an African American writer—even if she talks about that greatly, even if that is the core of her writing—I believe that first and foremost she was a writer. Why put a label of physical identity to a writer?

AS: Who would you wish to see win next?

JMG: The Korean writer Han Kang, for example, though she is young for the prize. There is a room in which all the gifts that the Academy has received are displayed, along with souvenirs donated by laureates: a typewriter, childhood shoes, etc… I gave a seed from Mauritius, and my daughter did a drawing to accompany it. 

I am more of an optimist by nature. I enjoyed living, I appreciated all the emotions that life had to offer.

It’s a seed from the tambalacoque tree, which has come so close to extinction. The dodo bird whose digestive system is crucial for the preparation of the tree’s seed for germination is extinct. So I gave a seed to the Academy with the hope that one day a scientist would find a way to have these seeds grow again.

AS: In 2009, you wrote a letter to then-president Barack Obama about the Chagos archipelago inquiring what could be done for its displaced population.

JMG: What bothered me was the forced depopulation. The fact that it is now being used as a U.S. Navy base, well, ok, that’s everywhere. But the island was inhabited by fishermen. The British Indian Ocean Territory is the actual owner of the archipelago and they lied; they told Americans who were looking to lease an empty space that the island was deserted, and they displaced by boat with the help of a private militia—that ensured that the four to five thousand people embarked on the boat— and sent them towards Mauritius. 

This story made it to Congress and an investigation looked into the matter, but by that time the U.S. Naval base was being built and they didn’t look back and I don’t think they ever will. Those families who for years have been living in slums await a decision on whether they can return to their homes.

AS: Some state that it is outrageous for an advocate of human rights such as yourself to praise China as you do. And well before that, in 2008 in France, you were criticized as not deserving of the Nobel. Does this bother you?

JMG: Do we deserve anything in life? I can’t remember who it was who said when asked upon receiving a prestigious award whether he thought it was well-deserved. He replied: “I don’t really deserve this award, but I have arthritis, and I don’t deserve that either.” And Borges replied to a similar question: “It’s a mistake but I thank you for committing it.” So, no, their criticism does not affect me. 

The criticism I may receive regarding China, I can understand it, I can see the mechanism of those who bring forward this kind of criticism, how they use the economic inequality in China to argue that the country is not egalitarian, and it is true, it isn’t, but Europe isn’t either, when you leave the center of Paris and you see how people live, it’s terrible. 

I am more of an optimist by nature. I enjoyed living, I appreciated all the emotions that life had to offer, and I am well aware of the fact that I am privileged, having lived in Mexico, and having a part of my life linked to Mauritius, I know it is not the case for everyone. 

There are countries where women’s rights are in a horrifying condition, children instead of going to school go to pick strawberries to make a living for themselves and their families, they wake up before sunrise, before the blazing sun, and the acidity of the fruit erodes their fingertips and nails. They are paid so little because they are kids, and they miss out on their childhood. All this in the prosperous state of Michoacán, in Mexico, which provides a fertile land where strawberries create the fortune of the landowners who go once a month to shop and entertain themselves in Miami. There is such a disparity of wealth between these children and the adults. 

AS: Ecology, from the Greek word “oykos” means “home”, and I know you are quite worried about our common house. 

JMG: Ecology is the art of keeping home in a good state. I saw many things deteriorate: seas are ruined, animal species go extinct each year, it has become more and more toxic to live in cities. Not much to be enthusiastic about. Perhaps there is less poverty, and there is a cure to more illnesses, but there aren’t less wars. There is an environmental crisis, and we ought to act now. I find it remarkable that the youth gets mobilized. After all, this is their home. It is no longer mine, I am here temporarily.

AS: But your books will stay on. Does writing become easier with time?

JMG: Writing has never been an agony for me. To write by hand allows me to scratch out things and get back to its original form if I want to. To write on a computer is more complicated for me because we erase easily and it has an irrevocable side to it that I don’t like. I like working on a manuscript, I like the feel of the paper, I like the hold of a pen, the fluidity of the ink… 

I use a thick, coarse paper, and I write on both sides and the ink does not stain through. Each time I go to New Mexico I buy several reams, I worry that that this kind of paper will disappear, so I want to have my stock.

AS: You move every 12 years or so, leaving one place for another. In your seventies, you began learning Chinese.

JMG: I don’t know what the explanation for this may be. There comes a point where one has the impression of not discovering any longer and falls into repetition, it’s time to leave. Writing corresponds to my mode of life, which is slow. The greatest photographers are quick, they are instinctive. I have no talent for music. I have a passion for drawing but not the talent. So, the only thing left for me is writing. 

“When you write you don’t necessarily write for someone to read, you write with the idea that you will see things appear as they are or as you wish they were.”

You don’t really need a talent for words, it’s a dictionary, you just need to know the right words. And writing is a matter of pace, where slowness is allowed, where one can daydream, that is when the words come knocking on the door and it becomes an urgency to transcribe them onto paper.

AS: Slow? You wrote over 50 books and numerous articles!

JMG: Yes, but that’s all I do! Think about what life is made out of and all I do is write, it’s my sole activity in life. I write almost every day. I teach sometimes. I research and read archives sometimes. I felt the most profound passions when writing or reading, passions that resonate strongly in me. The passions I have in life, it’s by writing them in a disguised manner that I felt the feeling that I was living them profoundly.

AS: Is that why you write?

JMG: When you write you don’t necessarily write for someone to read, you write with the idea that you will see things appear as they are or as you wish they were, in a stronger way than in reality, in a more significant way because it will last, and you will be able to start anew. If they read you that’s good because writing is a bridge towards the other. It’s like writing a letter, you are never sure whether it will be read but you write it anyway. I like the longevity of books, the fact that we can read Mo Tzu’s genius or Sylvia Plath’s poetry even after their death.

AS: Do you think of your mortality?

JMG: I don’t dislike the idea of being transformed into paper after my death.

AS: You grew up surrounded by books. Did your family encourage your desire to become a writer?

JMG: My father did not write much, but when he did it was impeccable. My mother wrote many beautiful letters. They inherited their grandfather’s library, and when my father returned from Africa, he worked hard to have this library repatriated from Mauritius to France, he worried that otherwise it would get dispersed. It arrived by boat in crates, and there were thousands of books, and I regard it as a gift from my father. I still have a place in Nice because I don’t know where to put all these books. 

For me it was their way of encouraging me to read and in a way to write. Had it not been for that family library brought over, I would perhaps not have the knowledge of such books by Balzac, Maupassant, Hugo, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. For me they were children’s books, and I read them even if I did not fully understand everything at a young age. 

My wife Jémia has also been an incredible source of encouragement in my life.

AS: You say that “writers are fragile things”. Within that fragility where do you find yourself?

JMG: Literature is multiform and I am quite attached to this idea. When I begin writing a book I don’t know what it will be, and while I write I am not sure where it’s going, and when it’s finished I am not fully satisfied. One doesn’t know the utility of literature or what a book is for really. 

I was helped by books. Literature did not prevent massacres from happening, but if it helps someone from time to time it’s already something. There is a belief that violence is the currency of modern times. I don’t believe so. Civilizations cannot last when they are violent; they last when they stand on the opposite side of violence.

Translated from French and edited for length.

Aysegul Sert
Aysegul Sert
Born and raised in Istanbul, fluent in four languages, Ayşegül Sert has reported extensively from Turkey, France, and the United States. Her articles are published in The New York Times, Le Figaro, Le Monde, and The New Yorker. An advocate for writers at risk, her work focuses on freedom of speech, gender equality, and human rights. She is a guest commentator on Arte and France Culture on issues related to international politics and culture.

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