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Nobel's literary french connecction

What is it about ‘obscure’ French writers and their fertile rapport with the Nobel Prize in Literature? The Swedish Academy’s decision to confer the top crown in the kingdom of words to Patrick Modiano has stumped many self-proclaimed connoisseurs of the lit-mart, including yours truly. Looked like a JMG Le Clezio redux all over again: yes, the 2008 literature laureate, who, in addition to hailing from France, was also little known outside the Gaelic world that was turning into itself. Or so we thought.

Why wasn’t the Anglophone world happily aware of Modiano or Le Clezio before they firmly landed themselves in the highest storey of the literary ivory tower? In fact, it’s not even that they haven’t been translated. Both Le Clezio and Modiano have had that bit of adventure in crossing over: to English, Spanish, chiefly. Yet, there seems to be unbridgeable gulf between them and the English-reading-speaking world, which was, until the last minute, was swooning over Japan’s biggest cultural import Haruki Murakami, or grinding its teeth with Philip Roth’s characteristic all-American pensive prattle.

France, till date, has produced not less than eleven Nobel laureates. The obvious ones are Albert Camus (1960), Andre Gide (1947), Henri Bergson (1927), Anatole France (1921) and Romain Rolland (1915). Why are they obvious: because English literature courses in Indian universities have been the splitting image of their former colonial educationists. Thanks to the cult of existentialism earlier and French critical theory later, the French have had such an impact on Anglophone, and indeed, world literature, that it’s almost impossible to disregard. How to read a word of any ‘text’ without making an oblique reference to Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida? Yet, it’s critical theory that also has been responsible for a crevasse opening up between the French and the rest of the literary circuit.

Chiefly, American writing has followed a graph of its own, rising and falling with US’ tryst with global mood, from Cold War literature to post-9/11 ‘multiculturalism’ fiction. But the Swedes have a mind of their own and the Nobel pick is a sign of their quirk, a happy one, obviously. So here’s yours truly pledging to tread the winding road leading up to Professor Modiano. Time to walk the talk.  

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Angshukanta Chakraborty

Angshukanta Chakraborty

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