PEN World Voices: J.M.G. Le Clezio in Conversation with Adam Gopnik

(I hate to miss PEN World Voices this year, but I’m very proud to present a report by Dedi Felman, an independent publishing professional, on an event featuring our latest Nobel Laureate. As senior editor at Simon & Schuster, Dedi republished J.M.G. Le Clezio’s first novel, ‘The Interrogation’ — Levi)

We enter the grand, classical space that is the 92nd Street Y’s Kaufmann Concert Hall. The orchestra seats are quickly filling. Two upholstered chairs occupy the stage. The facing chairs radiate a warm tangerine glow, an illusion sustained by strategic lighting and reinforced by the surrounding rich walnut paneling. A large screen behind the chairs continuously rotates listings for the upcoming PEN festival events. We are in the hands of professionals; already we know this will be a smoothly and intelligently-curated event.

Adam Gopnik, the interviewer for tonight’s event, does not disappoint. He is well-informed on Nobel Laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio’s life and writings and the conversation flows without lapse as Gopnik gently questions the notoriously reclusive author whose English is accented but fluent. Gopnik begins on a light-hearted note, welcoming the writer whom, he says with a smile, comes to NYC from that well-known French outpost, Albuquerque. Le Clezio explains that he has been living in New Mexico for the past 10 years, having moved there after an extended residence in a central part of Mexico. Like many of his fellow Southwesterners, Le Clezio arrived in the United States by crossing the border.

This first exchange firmly establishes the conversation’s overall themes of colonization, creolization, brilliantly-lit landscapes, and border-crossing. Le Clezio elaborates on his continent-hopping saying, “I’m a Breton, from Brittany.” He says that Bretons are poor like the Irish and so, like the Irish, they leave to travel the world. He is also a citizen of Mauritius, another place so small that residents make their way in the world by departing. Like many contemporary multicultural writers, Le Clezio alleges fidelity not to a specific nation but to the country of his imagination. And like Yasmina Khadra, interestingly, also an author who writes in French (who was at PEN World Voices two years ago), Le Clezio sees language as the only true place of belonging. Emphasizing his linguistic attachments, Le Clezio references the definitions of the words he eagerly sought out in the Encyclopedia Britannica of his youth: “For a long time, I thought writing would be an enumeration of words, of things … Each word contained a world.”

Watching Gopnik and Le Clezio interact on stage, I feel a bit of transnational vertigo of my own. In person, Le Clezio has the sharply carved features and stoic manner of an Easterner’s stereotype of an inhabitant of the American West; more Sam Shepard, perhaps, than true cowboy, but a man of the “en plein air” — outdoors — nevertheless. In Le Clezio’s enthusiastic embrace of J. D. Salinger, his kinship with non-Old World writers, his love of sun-etched landscapes, and his grounded earthiness, even his thick shoes and white socks, one imagines him perfectly at ease on a ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico (a reported origin of the Marlboro man) as on this New York City stage. The Philadelphia-born and Canadian-raised Gopnik, on the other hand, in his closely fitted dark suit, his precise questioning, and careful graciousness resembles nothing more than the European cosmopolite. Gopnik conducts the interview from the Paris salon; Le Clezio opens a window to the Great Outdoors.

In keeping with the image he presents, Le Clezio rejects the Parisian “nouveau roman” designation that his first novel The Interrogation attracted. He tells us that he identifies with the rebellious writers of the Jewish novel of the time and with freedom-seeking writers from the colonies such as Frantz Fanon and Aime Cesaire. Le Clezio’s affinity is for an era of suspicion, not style. He never lived in Paris and was distrustful of a literature that wanted to deliver a strong message to the world. [At this point, Gopnik rather hilariously points out to the audience that the mints of which Le Clezio is partaking have a picture of members of the previous Administration and are labeled “indict-mints.”] Trying to make sense for the American audience of Le Clezio’s apparent apolitical politicization, Gopnik asks the author if his is a humanism without a human being at the center? “I wish I could do that but I am a human being and everything I do comes from that,” Le Clezio somewhat mystifyingly replies.

Additional clarity ensues when Le Clezio cites a memory from his youth of witnessing Africans walking in a chain gang on the road, slaves on their way to build a swimming pool for the District Office in Nigeria. “This is what I’m made of, these images, my family also, because I am from Mauritius … I am from a slave holding colony … I belong to the same culture as Faulkner. I have the same feelings of guilt, of compassion, of wanting these things to change.”

Gopnik again addresses the apparent paradox: Le Clezio’s novels, Gopnik suggests, bear witness but not a message. The statement hangs, unanswered, though tacitly affirmed. What Gopnik suggests, a suggestion that Le Clezio appears to accept, makes sense. Narratively, however, complications abound. To bear witness is to come to grasp, if not to have already made decisions, on where one stands. Most of the writers that Le Clezio cites from Faulkner to Chamoiseau use language as a way to more fully embody the characters they are portraying, characters that are distinguished by their distinctive patois, their distinctive place, and the distinctive form of their story, yes, but finally characters that the writers struggled to make come alive for us as fully embodied beings, characters that act, characters that we readers must emotionally engage with if we are also to bear witness to humanity’s monstrousness — and its promise.

Commentators often speak of an evolution in Le Clezio’s writing, possibly most dramatically in the seventies and early eighties. Gopnik does not ask about this directly, but there is a rather rapid shift in the conversation to reading as a way of reaching — and perhaps inhabiting — the other. “Love,” Le Clezio says, “is the only real dimension of the world.” Just as quickly, we shift back to a discussion of the importance of landscape and language in his work.

“I am not a man of action,” Le Clezio concludes. Many writers would profess the same, but their novels might convey something quite different. Suddenly the two chairs on the stage appear a bit lonely and the air in this Upper East Side salon a bit stifling. These abstract questions of form, place, image and language, questions that influenced Le Clezio’s early novels, are the questions that many of us grew up with. And the Nobel Laureate has brilliantly carved out a novel form, set of images, and language as a response to them. But one wonders if this attentive audience isn’t already looking forward to the next generation’s rebellion, a rebellion that will not draw such a bright line between word and act, a rebellion that will not shy away from affirmation, at least an affirmation of truth as they can make sense of it.

It’s a line that Le Clezio himself seems to have increasingly erased over the course of his prolific career. “I’m a writer. I now work in closed places. I write at a plain table in Albuquerque.” the author says. There he imagines what it feels like as a bomb 3-4 times the weight of the bombs that fell near his grandmother’s house, fall near the houses of civilians today. As more of his later works are translated, hopefully we will be able to more easily grasp the true fullness of this brilliant writer’s trajectory.

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