When J.M.G. Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize for Literature last October, he unwittingly became part of an international ruckus. Just the month before, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the prize jury, said the United States was “too isolated, too insular” when it came to literature. That “ignorance,” Engdahl said, exists in part because American publishers “don’t translate enough” foreign literature. Thus, when Le Clézio, a French author virtually unknown in America, won the Nobel Prize it was taken by some as further evidence of an anti-American bias.
Still, there is validity to some of Engdahl’s argument and Le Clézio is an example. Although a few small American presses have published editions of his works in the last 15 or so years, not a lot of his catalog have been translated into English and the most recent translation issued by a major American publisher came more than 30 years ago. In light of the Nobel Prize, though, the 1964 translation of The Interrogation, Le Clézio’s debut novel that gained him international attention, was reissued in December by Simon & Schuster. The reissue was complete with the original cover photo of a young Le Clézio and his wife. Now out in paperback, the work is unlikely to reduce the umbrage of casual American readers who pick up the book simply because Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize. Again, though, that will not be an issue of his making.
The Interrogation, which won a prestigious French literary award when first published in 1963, is not a traditional novel. A Nobel summary of his work describes his early novels as “highly experimental in style and intellectually challenging.” That is true here. In fact, Le Clézio tells readers at the outset of The Interrogation that he “deliberately chose … a tenuous, abstract theme” and that he “made very little attempt at realistic treatment.” As such, it is perhaps symbolic of a literary version of the French New Wave film movement. Certainly, it represents Le Clézio at the start of his career and his beginning exploration of the novel.
The book is the story of Adam Pollo, a 29-year-old man who, Le Clézio says, “is not sure whether he has just left the left the army or a mental home.” An interrogation of the type most readers would expect from the title does not occur until the last 30 or so pages. Instead, the real interrogation is Adam’s own existential questioning of and approach toward life. He is a squatter in an empty home near the beach. He spends hours gazing out the window or lounging in deck chairs thinking and writing, usually in the form of letters to Michèle, who he considers his lover. Adam will go into town occasionally for food and cigarettes. When he does venture out of the house, he spends his time wandering the city and beach, still pondering often deeply philosophical questions in minute detail, sometimes logically and other times far more chaotically. Adam is so engaged in attempting to assess life as it is — or at least as he perceives it to be — that he doesn’t want a dog to start following him because he fears “the responsibility of leadership.”
In Le Clézio’s hands, we experience a multi-faceted exploration of Adam’s days and thoughts. The story is told in letters, diary entries, verse and even reproductions of newspaper articles of events that occur in the book. Yet language, not presentation, is also a cornerstone tool.
For example, the first two pages of chapter E (all chapters are by letter in alphabetical order rather than number) use a variety of geometry terms as a means of expression. Angles, squares, circles, parallel lines, curved lines and rectangles are all used to describe the process of finding the house in which Adam has taken up residence. Le Clézio returns to this device near the end of the novel, as Adam views the room he is in and then the world in terms of angles and design. “The world, like Adam’s pyjamas, was striped with straight lines, tangents, vectors, polygons, rectangles, trapezoids of all kinds, and the network was perfect[.]”
There is at times dense exposition: “Simultaneity is the total annihilation of time and not of movement; an annihilation to be conceived not necessarily as mystical experience, but by a constant exercise of the will to the absolute in abstract reasoning.” Yet there is also wonderfully descriptive writing: “The sun went on blazing in the naked sky, and the countryside shrank back into itself, little by little, under the heat; the soil cracked in places, the grass turned a dirty yellow, sand heaped up in holes in the walls, and the trees were weighed down by dust. It seemed as though the summer would never end. …. The atmosphere made unremitting efforts.”
This all tends to reflect and reinforce Adam’s fragmented and mercurial mind. We do not learn whether he recently left the army or a mental institution; his internal and external dialogues leave both as possibilities. We do not know whether it is simply society, life in general or anything in particular that created his sense of alienation and detachment or his occasional delusions of seeming grandeur. When Adam ultimately acts publicly in a way that leads to being committed for psychiatric observation, there is still some question whether he or others are more perceptive of reality.
The nontraditional approach of The Interrogation and the fact it is the story of a seemingly unstable mind in existential crisis makes it unlikely to captivate a broad English-speaking audience. That does not, however, mean Le Clézio was awarded the Nobel Prize as a result of anti-American bias. To the contrary, the departure from literary norms The Interrogation embodies is one exhibit in a body of work of which Americans are too unaware, a body of work which undoubtedly provided more than adequate grounds for the honor. While the book is certainly not for everyone, the opportunity for Americans to explore for themselves the work that first brought Le Clézio to the attention of the literary world is one step toward reducing our insularity.
…he who writes is shaping a destiny for himself.
J.M.G. Le Clézio, The Interrogation