Sunday, 26 June 2011

J.M. Le Clézio

I try to find something to read in French. It has to be a novel, as I can follow a story without having to look up every other word. I'm attracted to the Nobel Prize winner of 2008. What kind of writing gets a Nobel Prize? To my astonishment the back cover is immediately readable, so I open it and begin at the beginning: 'I know hunger, I've felt it.' The author explains that he was one of the children following US trucks at the end of WW2, hoping for a crust, or a bar of chocolate. How he'd gulp down a tin of sardines, oil and all. & the luxury of a tin of spam... But, he says, this book is about another kind of hunger.

It's a family history, presumably the author's family, the story of a girl growing up in 1930s France. We become aware of the casual anti-semitism of adult conversation, even as she's becoming attracted to a young Jewish Englishman visiting his aunt in Paris. They meet up again after the war. His aunt has been rounded up in the affair of the 'Vel d'Hiv' – the 'winter velodrome' - a notorious and merciless round-up of Jews by French police in 1942, for which Jacques Chirac was to apologise in 1995. The author visits the site of the velodrome, now a high-rise estate with a memorial. The local youths challenge him: 'What do you want?'

I kept coming back to it until the end. Le Clézio has written since he was a child, and it shows. The longest word is probably in the title, 'Ritournelle de la faim' – 'Refrain of hunger' - and I read it hungrily. The writing and the story are simple enough, and yet it's alive and has real emotional depth. It's great to see that winning a Nobel Prize doesn't require long words, complex sentences, elaborate ideas, a big style, the expression of wild emotions, although it might take a lifetime of practice.

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