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

Ayşegül Sert in Conversation with the Nobel Laureate

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, French author and laureate of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, is commonly known as J.M.G. Le Clézio, an abbreviation he rather fancies. His numerous works complement his life’s many journeys, reflecting the injustice and beauty of near and far-away lands. He has lived for extended periods in Nigeria, the UK, Thailand, Mexico, Panama, Mauritius, Morocco, Korea, China, and the United States. He is, literally, a “citizen of the world.” His peripatetic life has allowed him to observe and chronicle rapidly shifting societal paradigms firsthand.

Born in 1940, in Nice, France, Le Clézio grew up amid the chaos of occupied armed conflict, which shaped his disdain for war. He was raised by the women of his family, which no doubt provided fodder for the well-crafted female characters in his work. In 1948, Le Clézio embarked on his seminal journey. He boarded a cargo ship with his brother and mother to join his father, a medical doctor working in Nigeria who he had yet to meet. Onboard, tucked away in his cabin, the eight-year-old filled notebooks with drawings, sketches, and writings—the birth of his writing life. After a year as a united family, the three returned to Nice. His father remained in Nigeria until his retirement.

After spending his adolescence in Nice, Le Clézio first considered making illustrated books, then came a stint in poetry, which he soon abandoned for prose. He settled in the UK in 1959, found a teaching position for a year, and in 1963, at the age of 23, published his first novel, Le Procès-Verbal [The Interrogation]. It won the prestigious Prix Renaudot. Several books followed. His 1980 novel Désert [Desert], awarded the Prix Paul Morand by the French Academy, marked his big break. 

Le Clézio’s body of work—novels, essays, short stories—have been translated into more than 40 languages. His essay collection Mydriasis, followed by To the Icebergs came out in a remarkable translation in the U.S. a few months ago. Chanson bretonne suivi de L’enfant et la guerre was published in France a few weeks ago. In addition to writing, Le Clézio continues teaching at universities. He is currently writing a new novel. 

We met at the Paris headquarters of publishing house Gallimard, where I must confess I was apprehensive about sitting across from someone who usually avoids talks, book signings, and interviews. That wariness, however, was dispelled the moment he entered the room. He is tall, with an aura emanating benevolence. As we began our conversation, his deep voice reverberated through the room. He spoke slowly, aware of the recorder on the table. 

His words hold a palpable authenticity and empathy. “When I began my career, I was extremely timid and I feared meeting people; it scared me. I did not like going on television or radio,” he admitted. With age I got better at it, and now I do my best to make it work, more or less.” Does he read the critics? I asked. “I prefer to avoid them,” he said. “I don’t like critics, especially in this domain. When it’s too glorified I ask myself, but why? When it’s bitter, I tell myself it will discourage me from going on. So I simply don’t read them.”

Here Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, who turns 80 today, weighs in on issues that deeply concern him, including the ecological crisis, global civil unrest, immigration, and the coming U.S. elections.

*

Ayşegül Sert: I wanted to start with a quotation from 1980. By then you had published 15 books, you were 40 years old, and on the television program Apostrophes you said: “A writer is new with each book. It’s not a new book but a new writer each time.” Which writer do I have across from me?

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio: It is another epoch of my life. I had the chance to live with the native population in the forest of Panama, in the Darién, at the border with Colombia. It was a people who lived according to their traditions, as they had done forever, dispersed along the river, the unity of their culture being in the structure of family and not in the concept of nation. There was no chief per se. It was a population that was completely anarchic, and I appreciated my stays there. I learned the language, I discovered a period that linked me to an anterior period when I was a student and doing a university research thesis on Henri Michaux.

AS: Michaux also had a period in his lifetime when he was interested in non-European cultures, from Asia to Ecuador, and he wrote essays on the use of hallucinatory plants as a means of investigation.

JMG: People were quite critical of him, arguing he was losing himself. When I went into this forest, there were native people, healers who use natural plants, and I recall a “doctor” named Colombia—that was his surname because he had studied there—an intensely soft and intriguing character, and people came to consult him. His specialty was visions of the near future; he would take the sap from Datura stramonium, a plant that grows there, and would have peculiar visions. He would then make his prognostic. 

He had a gift to foresee floods, which is of high value when you live by the river like they do. He would warn locals of an upcoming flood, and people would take their valuables and find temporary refuge up in the hills and return safely to their homes after the flood. I stayed a long time around him. One day, he told me: it’d be interesting that you see what I see. So he gave me the Datura for three consecutive nights: the first night nothing happened, on the second I was in a bad mood, and on the third night I saw what he saw. I wrote Mydriasis, for he had opened my eyes.

AS: In France, Mydriasis was published in 1973, and To The Icebergs in 1978. Here they are more than four decades later reaching English-language readers.

JMG: I did not read these texts since I wrote them. They are far away for me. It’s always impressive for an author that a translator devotes time to carry your words into another language. Translation is a very difficult thing to do, particularly for these two texts that are almost abstract. When To the Icebergs was first published, Michaux sent me an amiable letter letting me know he had appreciated it. I didn’t live in Paris at the time and when I came to town I had a number of people to see, and he was always one of them. He was a very interesting man. He had, like all travelers, great stories to tell.

AS: You used to visit him at his home on Rue Séguier, not far from where we’re meeting today. Did you first meet the man or his work?

JMG: I began reading Michaux when I was around the age of 15 and I remember thinking that his writing was perfect. At a time in my life when I was not sure what direction to take, a professor advised me to find a literary research subject. I chose Michaux. It just made sense for me to work on his work. I sent him a letter, something along the lines of: “Dear Sir, I am writing a thesis, could I come and see you?” He never replied but he called Gallimard because he had recognized the name. 

Earth belongs to everyone, the right of passage has to exist. Birds fly over borders, why can’t human beings?

I had not stated that I was a writer in my letter, I had simply signed it with my name. Michaux had left his phone number with the operator for me, and the first thing he told me when I rang was: “Are you that writer?” I told him: “Yes, I write books.” He told me: “Ok, come see me, here is my address.” I went right away!

AS: Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye greatly inspired you to write that first book (Le Procès-Verbal) Michaux recognized you by.

JMG: It was the time of the literary movement Le Nouveau Roman, which irritated me. There was an arrogant literary climate in France. I didn’t wish to go in that direction, it didn’t interest me. I wanted to write something different that would be closer to what I lived. I needed an opening sentence and of course I did not dare write: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born”. 

I had a sort of veneration for this author, who was in my view very different from the others, he had managed to write a marvelous and audacious book. I wanted to write a book that would be the continuation of The Catcher in the Rye. You could say I was obsessed with him; I was in my twenties, I remember I had even begun boxing because my sparring partner looked just like J.D. Salinger.

AS: You also met the great American writer William Styron.

JMG: We worked at different times as manuscript readers in Paris. We both did that to make some money that would enable us to continue to write and live. I remember meeting him for the first time in the halls of Gallimard. We spoke of books.

AS: Yours?

JMG: I don’t like to talk about my books.

AS: Let’s talk then about the books by Henry Roth, an American writer who counted for you.

JMG: He lived in a mobile home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He had written an absolute bestseller, Call It Sleep, a magnificent novel in which he recounted his childhood in the slums of New York. It’s a powerful book on the rite of passage. He was a communist in the McCarthy era and he was imprisoned, and by the time he was free he was broken. 

Roth’s wife gave piano lessons in their mobile home, and when I visited them I remember I had to duck by the grand piano. They were astounding people. When his wife passed away, he fell into a depression and a friend advised him to write again, which he did, in his eighties. I really liked Mercy of a Rude Stream.

AS: What do you remember most about the years you lived in the United States?

JMG: I was hesitant at the beginning but then I was seduced by the American culture, by its way of living, by the kindness of people, not everywhere of course, but the first interactions, at least the people I met, were warm and welcoming. After a teaching position in Boston, I went to Austin, to Santa Cruz, and one day, as we drove through New Mexico, my wife said: “Here reminds me of Morocco.”

She was referring to the desert, the mountains, the colors, the blue sky. Someone told me I could teach there and I was hired as the replacement of a man who had taught 19th-century French literature and decided to become a real-estate agent. That is very American! One day you decide to become something else, and you can. 

AS: When you look at the United States today, what do you see?

JMG: Things started changing after 9/11. Something got blocked in its functioning, not only in the United States but also in Europe, which has constructed itself as a fortress, wary of anything that comes from outside. When we lived in Mexico we needed a car because we lived in a rural zone; we found one in Santa Cruz and every year when we went away for the summer, we took the car out of Mexico to California, left it in a sort of wasteland, and when the summer was over and we were back we picked it up from there and drove to Mexico. 

Each time we crossed the border from different points. At Piedras Negras, for example, the passage was relatively easy, and there was no issue. Mexicans had at the time a border crossing card that allowed them to work in the U.S. and return to Mexico to live, and sometimes in the same day. I remember a bridge at El Paso-Ciudad Juárez that was constantly filled with pedestrians going to work one way in the morning and returning home the other way in the evening and there was no problem. 

Each time we crossed the border by car, we were in the flow of people passing through in one direction or the other. Gradually, though, things got worse. The current president is not the only one responsible for this. One president after the other shrank that right of passage. At the time there was no wall, no fence. If you prevented people from crossing the bridge, they would have crossed through the water. I don’t know why people got so obsessed about tightening and toughening border policies. Now it has become very difficult and inhumane.

AS: How do you explain this shift—this fear of the other?

JMG: It is psychopathy, it’s based on nothing real, it’s obsessional. Nearby where we lived in Albuquerque lived an old man, he was an undocumented worker, and ever since he had crossed the border he lived there. He was greatly appreciated by the community, he knew how to make fireplaces and chimneys in terra cotta, he was a fine artisan. People would have never thought: let’s send him back. 

“The Algerian War was kind of our Vietnam. I was opposed to this war. I thought it was shameful to wage a war on people who demanded their independence.”

Who would have made his work after he was gone? There was a real exchange and it was without fear. What’s happening today is appalling, this suspicious way of looking at people, particularly when it’s used everywhere by the power as an electoral argument. Earth belongs to everyone, the right of passage has to exist. Birds fly over borders, why can’t human beings?

AS: During the 2017 French presidential race, you stated that if the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen won, you would give back your French passport.

JMG: It was unbearable. Marine Le Pen represents everything that I viscerally hate: her statements, the personality, her father who is a horrific type. They represent the most deplorable in European politics—fascism and racism—and all that is disguised in polite forms of so-called patriotism.

AS: In a time when divisions dominate the collective psyche, you went the other way: in 2009, you created, with the Mauritian intellectual Issa Asgarally, The Foundation for Interculturality and Peace.

JMG: There is a saying in Mauritius which translates as “There is only one race: The human race”. In Mauritius, there are communities from India, Europe, Africa, China, people who are originally from Lebanon and Pakistan, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus. They live together and accept one another. It is an example of the understanding between communities. I thought Mauritius was the perfect setting to establish a sort of laboratory to extend the idea of interculturality, of how to live together and to exchange—not to tolerate, as is the common use in France—but to go beyond tolerance. 

I didn’t know where to start. So, I told myself we need to begin from the beginning, from children, and it became obvious that they learn who is the other they share the space with. We try to establish a dialogue between children from poor schools who go to visit the rich schools and vice-versa; they meet, they get to know one another. It’s an ongoing process. I distribute books, and I intend to distribute books that are not only for children but also can be read by their parents. 

To children around the age of ten years old, I give Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, and it’s very well received. I read it at a time in my life when I felt depressed and it lifted me up to read Gibran. That’s why I distribute his book as much as I can. I tell children, you don’t have to read it but if from time to time you feel consumed by questions you will find answers in this book. 

AS: In your twenties, you thought of going into exile to Sweden if you were required to serve with arms for your military service. It is only decades later that you actually went to collect your Nobel!

JMG: The Algerian War was kind of our Vietnam. I was opposed to this war. I thought it was shameful to wage a war on people who demanded their independence. I lived in the UK then, the officers sent letters to my parents in France, who advised me not to return home for the time being. One of the options was to go to Sweden where many dissidents were.

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.





More Story
Jenny Odell and Wendy Liu on Liberating Ourselves From Usefulness As someone who grew up in Silicon Valley, I’m used to hearing two platitudes: either all tech is inherently evil, or tech...