“Every Word Contains the World,” A Conversation Between Adam Gopnik and Nobel Prize Winner J.M.G. Le Clézio

In her introduction to Friday night’s festival-opening event, Caro Llewellyn, Director of PEN World Voices: The New York Festival of International Literature,  feted the festival’s fifth birthday with a retelling of its roots. She recalled  skeptics’ claims  that the volume of literary events and readings in New York negated the need for such a gathering. Alluding to another famous New York festival going on in a nearby neighborhood, she remarked: “No one has ever said  ’there are too many films in New York, so why have a film festival?’”

Those who said there wasn’t an appetite for a literary festival in New York have clearly been proven wrong. This year’s lineup features 160 writers from 40 countries and some 70 events.

Friday night’s conversation between New Yorker writer and novelist Adam Gopnik and 2008 Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clézio addressed many themes that have run through festivals past and present: the legacy of colonialism on language and literature, the impact of war on memory and artistic movements, and how the lands a writer come from (real and imagined) shape art.

An Unlikely Duo

Le Clézio and Gopnik walked on stage together, the Nobel laureate a full foot taller than his Canadian interviewer, seeming larger-than-life on the minimal stage set with two chairs and a table (water for Le Clézio, water and hot tea for Gopnik.)

The oddly mismatched pair sat side-by-side, Le Clézio leaning forward, his long legs and too short pants revealing white socks, and Gopnik, cross-legged and straight-backed in his seat. Throughout the evening, Gopnik provided the comic relief (making several jokes at the expense of his native Canada) to Le Clézio’s straight talk, though the two men–both of whom have raised families in foreign countries–found common ground on the nature of writing, multiculturalism, and yes, Spam.

Spam and Wonderbread

Le Clézio was in Nice at the outbreak of World War II, and his earliest memory is of a bomb falling across the street from his Grandmother’s home: “I remember falling on the ground and shrieking,” he said, recalling the terrible noise whistling through the air.

But the bomb was dropped not by German planes, but Canadian ones, targeting the German population in the area. When he heard this, the Canadian Gopnik interjected with a sincere apology on the part of his country.

Le Clézio confessed to not having a larger awareness of world events at the time (he was just a boy), but stated: “I didn’t have historical knowledge of what happened but I know personal feelings, sensations…I suffered from hunger, I remember being on the road, the Americans coming, begging for food…” To this today, he recalls with precision what the American GIs gave him: gum, white bread (which he said was delicious) and Spam. “For me, they were the beginning of life,” he said.

To this, Gopnik pronounced: “It was a great moment in Franco-American relations: we sent them Spam and Wonderbread and they gave us Le Clézio!”

On Voyaging and “Creolization”

Le Clézio is a man who can justly call many places home. He traces his traveling tendencies back to the influence of his ancestors: “My family is from Brittany and Britons are poor like the Irish. My ancestors left Brittany for Mauritius—an island, very small,” he said. His far-flung extended family meant that he was exposed to many languages at a young age: “My father was a medical officer in Nigeria, my uncle was in Trinidad…My cousins spoke English for scientific matters at school, French for literary things, and Creole in their general life.” Le Clézio himself has two passports: one French, the other from Mauritius.

Gopnik asked if the idea of “creolized” sound, an authentic language culture, was important to a man who grew up surrounded with the sounds of diverse tongues.

“Creolization, it’s a good thing, to mix, adapt to a new identity,” he said. “My parents believed in this.”

Le Clézio said that while he was born in the south of France, he never felt he truly belonged there: “For me, I couldn’t really call any place my country- my country was my imagination,” he said, “language was my real place and I began to write.”

He recalled how he used to relish reading the volumes of French, Spanish and English literature from his grandparent’s library. “There were no books for children,” he said, so instead he read the classics, as well as several dictionaries. “I still see life through those pages,” he says of the latter. He paused and smiled, remembering what he called a “conversation dictionary” from the 19th century,“designed to teach young women not to embarrass their husbands.”

While this particular dictionary once taught women who could not go to college about the world, it filled the future Nobel prize winner’s head with images of the world beyond his grandparent’s library: “I have a strange perception of the world through those books,” he mused.

Gopnik defined this strangeness as the “precision” in Le Clézio’s earlier works, such as 1967’s L’extase matérielle, in which he wrote: “I am in love with details. I like all small things and creatures, for I admire animals, just as much as I admire objects. The more they are needed, the more pleasure they give me.”

Le Clézio said it was while reading those dictionaries that he came across images of ancient Peruvian civilization that sparked his later interest in the “New World” (his doctoral thesis was on Mexico’s early history.) “I read that and it made me dream, something exciting had happened there,” he said.

Later in life, Le Clézio moved to Mexico, teaching at a small college and chasing the dreams of his boyhood. But he says that safety concerns for his wife and two young children spurred him to leave: “We did what most people do in Mexico—we crossed the border.” (A somewhat uncomfortable joke, especially in light of the swine flu epidemic said to have begun in Mexico.)

Since that crossing, Le Clézio has been all over America, most recently in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Of his current continent, he exclaimed: “I like very much the New World!”

Celebrating Salinger, Or Literature of Questions

“One of the first modern novels I read was J.D. Salinger,” said Le Clézio, “I was 17, 18 when I read Salinger.” It was this book that helped to shape his impression of what novels should be,  a “theatrical play felt from the inside.” When he reads a good novel, he says the reader should be “swallowed” by the novel: “when I read Catcher in the Rye, I am Holden Caulfield,” he said.

He even confessed to emulating Salinger’s writing practices. Having read somewhere that Salinger had a hut in his back yard where he would go to write, he emulated his idol by doing the same.

Le Clézio’s favorite short story is Salinger’s “Perfect Day for a Banana Fish,” which he saw as the story of the confrontation of power (Hemingway) by the inner soul of literature (Salinger).

“Literature is contrary to knowledge and affirmation. Literature is a series of questions,” said Le Clézio. He recalls how the world “crashed” after the Second World War: “At 10-15 years old, I was sure of absolutely nothing. You couldn’t believe in the message of literature, it can’t give a lesson. It can express questions, anger, derision, but not security,” he said.

“The first 15-20 years [of my life experience] were more a negation of Malraux, of “littérature engage,” Le Clézio said. He loved Malraux’s La Condition Humaine and the plays of Sartre, but somehow the philosophies of these texts failed him.

To Gopnik’s response that “all generations fail,” Le Clézio replied: “Failure was the Algerian war, trying to impose on a nation colonial power.”

Gopnik, seizing his chance, asked, “I always felt there was a clandestine dialogue between you and Camus. Did you feel that?”

Le Clézio responded that he likes Camus because he “doesn’t give affirmation.” He couldn’t choose between Algerian independence and his love for France, and “for this I loved him, he was a witness to contradictions, he was convinced the world had no other meaning.”

The contradictions that Camus bore witness to seemed to mirror his own experiences: “I spent most of my childhood on the Mediterranean, I could see Algeria on other side of the sea. Some of my friends in school died in Algeria, they were killed,” Le Clézio said. He considers himself lucky because, “I lived in a sharp world with strong light and a beautiful sea yet at the same time I had all this great angst,” he recalls.

Le Clézio feels the experience of the Algerian War was an “important part of my education,” and that, following the realities of war, he found the writings of the Greek Philosophers inadequate commentary on life’s meaning: “it didn’t give me questions of life.”

“In a sunny country, you shouldn’t feel angst,” Le Clézio said. “I read Camus in the shade of an olive tree— that was a privilege.”

“En Plein Air” The Landscapes of Le Clézio

Landscape, as Gopnik pointed out, plays a hugely important role in Le Clézio’s work. The author admitted he used to write entirely out of doors (“en plein aire,” as Gopnik’s put it), and spoke of taking books to the beach—something you can viscerally experience in the beach sequence in The Interrogation.

“The conventions of light and sun, the strength of nature- you could not do that in Paris or London—you would have to do that under an umbrella!” Le Clézio joked.

Though he now writes primarily indoors, at an “ordinary desk” in New Mexico, Le Clézio said he continues to see the same instincts, language, and dreams in all parts of nature, even seeing towns and urban landscapes as “a production of nature.”

Gopnik brought up the fact that one of La Clézio’s students or a follower of his work once said his ambition was to obtain “a humanism without human beings at the center,” asking if this was true.

“I wish I could do that but I am a human being, everything I write is from a human being’s point of view,” Le Clézio lamented. He said that he feels the closest to this state of “humanism without humans” when he reads ancient Indian spiritual texts or the poems of Rimbaud: “When I read this, it makes me shiver,” he said.

On Why He’s Not a “New Novelist”

“The Interrogation was published when I was 22 years old. At 22 you want to break (down) doors, you have to be violent, say that you exist, I wanted to say something,” he said. “As you age, you change, you begin to understand you don’t need to say ‘I exist,’” Le Clézio laughed.

Le Clézio said he submitted the manuscript of The Interrogation with a letter saying, “This is NOT a new novel.” “I wanted a strong separation. I felt more closely linked to the New York Jewish novel, I felt more connected to those writers talking about rebellion.”

He says he felt a suspicion towards the “New Novel” writers, strongly identifying with Nathalie Sarraute’s Age of Suspicion: “suspicion is a good description for that time,” he said, referring to his feelings towards Socialists who he feels “never saw what was happening, or were blind” to the negative aspects of the communist regimes in China and Russia.

Le Clézio sees the real new literature as emerging from authors in former French colonies choosing to tell their stories in French. He feels that the guilt about slavery and colonialism can be forgiven through their use of the former colonizer’s language, citing examples such as Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal as writers who exemplify this “new literature.” He said he was “honored” by their choice to write in his native tongue, and maintains that the best writers in French literature now are writers from Africa, the West Indies, and Quebec.

Le Clézio’s memories of war and his childhood experiences in Africa and Nigeria (where he visited his father) made him sensitive to the ways of colonialism: “I still remember violent images in Africa,” he said. He recalled one day where he saw people being led in a chain gangs along the road to build a swimming pool for a colonial official. He recalls how the official looked on at the scene, motionless, in a white hat.

“It was a privilege to bear witness to these things,” he said. “Now I can read about the slave trade, and I know what that means, I saw it with my own eyes,” he said.

Language and Nationality

When an audience member asked about a Nobel committee member’s recent criticism of American literary culture, Gopnik reformatted the question to ask if Le Clézio feels that his win reaffirms the importance of French literature and its relevance in the modern world.

“I have two passports, I belong to both nations,” Le Clézio said of his dual citizenship in Mauritius and France. “I don’t think literature is strictly connected to a nationality, literature makes use of language,” he said, citing Joseph Conrad’s choice to write in English despite the fact that it was not his native tongue.

He feels an author’s work doesn’t belong to a nation, but to “the language in which you write.” “For me, the French language is not declining,” he said, citing authors around the world like Glissant, Chamoiseau and Césaire as breathing new life into the language from many corners of the globe.

When asked if he had political views or a cause he feels strongly about, Le Clézio stressed his separation between the spheres of writing and politics, reiterating his desire to “not write pamphlets,” but novels. He did admit to feeling indignant at times, such as when news reports discussed the weight of bombs falling on Baghdad, bombs three times the size of the one that fell near his Grandmother’s home in World War II.

He said that while he’s not fit for protest—“I can’t even defend myself against a policeman, what can I do?”—He admitted to feeling pride at his daughter’s recent participation in an anti-Iraq War protest in the streets of Albuquerque: “It was very good, I’m glad she did that,” he said, qualifying it with the assertion “I am not a man of politics.”

Yet it is difficult to take this comment at face value. Case in point: during a point in the conversation where he was discussing writers in former colonies writing in French, Le Clézio began to cough, and took out a package of mints from his pocket, popping one into his mouth. Gopnik laughed and called attention to the packaging of these seemingly innocuous “Indictmints” :The box was plastered with the faces of the Bush administration behind bars.

Genesis of Wandering Star

Wandering Star is Le Clézio’s critically-acclaimed novel about two young girls on opposite sides of the fence during the creation of Israel, and in his discussion with Gopnik, he revealed the very personal histories behind his story.

A young Le Clézio and his family hid in the mountains of Nice during World War II, and years later, his mother told him that in the next village over, Jews had been herded up by the Italians: “I had been so close to this drama, I had been a part of it –maybe I had seen the children,” he mused. “I wanted to free myself of the terrible and great history at the same time.”

“When my mother told me the story of the mountains, I was writing a short story of a Palestinian girl,” he said, referring to what would eventually become the second storyline in Wandering Star, originally two separate works.

He says he was reluctant to publish the novel immediately, as the first intifada happened as he was writing. He confessed there was also originally a portion of the book about Lebanon, which he suppressed, feeling it was “too close to actuality—I didn’t want it to be a pamphlet.”

All in all, Wandering Star took four or five years to complete, but all the while he was motivated to complete the memory of his mother; he felt he had been a witness to a story he needed to tell. “I was a contemporary witness at the same time to what was happening in Palestine and in Jordan,” Le Clézio said, referring to newspaper coverage of the conflict.

Le Clézio feels that even if one reads a terrible novel, it is written with a love for humanity, a concern for the other at heart. Citing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, he said she let us see the “monster in us also—we need to know we can be monsters to help us to cure our own monstrousness.”