THE PLANK DECEMBER 9, 2008
I just got around to reading Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio's Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech, and, well, look. I know, as an American, I can't be expected to appreciate the level on which such a cosmopolitan mind operates. But really: "If there is one virtue which the writer's pen must always have, it is that it must never be used to praise the powerful, even with the faintest of scribblings." Really? In my humble experience, sometimes powerful people can do great good--i.e., Franklin Roosevelt--and poor people can do great evil. And vice-versa--the world is a crazy, complicated place. Most people I know gave up such reductive, proto-Marxism in their late teens.
But the real strangeness of the speech comes when Le Clezio name-checks American authors. First, he cites a passage from Jack London: "I remember the first time I experienced just what literature could be--in Jack London's The Call of the Wild, to be exact, where one of the characters, lost in the snow, felt the cold gaining on him just as the circle of wolves was closing round him. He looked at his hand, which was already numb, and tried to move each finger one after the other. There was something magical in this discovery for me, as a child. It was called self-awareness." Um, to be exact, that's from Chapter 1 of White Fang, not The Call of the Wild. But hey, this is only the most important speech of his life, right?
He also name-checks his fellow Nobel awardee, William Faulkner, citing how the Mississippian revealed the absurd cruelty of the world in Sanctuary. Now, Sanctuary is a pretty brutal book--but then so are most of Faulkner's. But Sanctuary is also by most accounts one of his worst, a pot-boiler about a kidnapped debutante who turns out to be not so innocent. Faulkner himself wrote, in a 1932 edition of the book, "To me it is a cheap idea, because it was originally conceived to make money." He even tried to block further reprinting of it. It's perfectly possible that Le Clezio loves Sanctuary and thinks it is a much better evocation of the world's cruelty than, say, Light in August or Absalom, Absalom! It's also perfectly possible that he doesn't know what he's talking about.