“Why do we write?” pondered French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio in the opening lines of his Nobel literature lecture on Sunday, December 7th at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm.
Le Clézio, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, described war as the starting point of his earliest writerly experiences. “War is what civilians experience, very young children first and foremost,” he said.
As a young child in France during World War II, Le Clézio vaguely remembers Rommel’s troops marching into Paris, but more vivid is the scarcity of the years immediately following the war:
“We were deprived of everything, in particular books and writing materials. For want of paper and ink, I made my first drawings and wrote my first texts on the back of the ration books, using a carpenter’s blue and red pencil. This left me with a certain preference for rough paper and ordinary pencils.”
After describing his youthful literary attempts, such as a biography of an imaginary king named Daniel III (about whom Le Clézio amusedly wondered, “could he have been Swedish?”), he attributed much of his development as a writer to his grandmother’s storytelling, his early travels to Africa and the world of books, particularly “anthologies of travellers’ tales”.
Le Clézio said he was reading a collection of political essays, Essäer och texter, by Swedish author Stig Dagerman shortly before he received the news he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He quoted a passage from Dagerman’s The Writer and Consciousness, which served as inspiration for his lecture, entitled “the forest of paradoxes”:
“How is it possible on the one hand, for example, to behave as if nothing on earth were more important than literature, and on the other fail to see that wherever one looks, people are struggling against hunger and will necessarily consider that the most important thing is what they earn at the end of the month? Because this is where he (the writer) is confronted with a new paradox: while all he wanted was to write for those who are hungry, he now discovers that it is only those who have plenty to eat who have the leisure to take notice of his existence.”
Despite his foray into the metaphorical woods of contradictions, where the writer is challenged to “see that other tree in the forest of paradoxes,” Le Clézio did not want to dwell on the negative quandaries of his profession. “Literature—and this is what I have been driving at—is not some archaic relic that ought, logically, to be replaced by the audiovisual arts,” he said.
There are two reasons that literature remains necessary, he explained. The first is “because literature is made up of language.” “The writer, the poet, the novelist, are all creators. This does not mean that they invent language, it means that they use language to create beauty, ideas, images. This is why we cannot do without them. Language is the most extraordinary invention in the history of humanity, the one which came before everything, and which makes it possible to share everything.”
The second reason is that, in an era of globalization where the digital divide is only creating new classes of haves and have nots, books remain a means to give everyone equal access to global culture.
“The book, however old-fashioned it may be, is the ideal tool. It is practical, easy to handle, economical. It does not require any particular technological prowess, and keeps well in any climate,” Le Clézio said.
He continued his speech with a dedication to Elvira, a young female storyteller of the Emberá tribe in Panama, where he stayed for an extended period of time in his late 30s. He described her as “poetry in action, ancient theatre, and the most contemporary of novels all at the same time.”
“As if in her song she carried the true power of nature, and this was surely the greatest paradox: that this isolated place, this forest, as far away as could be imagined from the sophistication of literature, was the place where art had found its strongest, most authentic expression,” Le Clézio recalled.
Returning to the image of a child writing with a carpenter’s pencil on the back of ration books, he described the interdependency of two of the world’s most pressing issues: hunger and illiteracy.
“For all his pessimism, Stig Dagerman’s phrase about the fundamental paradox of the writer, unsatisfied because he cannot communicate with those who are hungry—whether for nourishment or for knowledge—touches on the greatest truth. Literacy and the struggle against hunger are connected, closely interdependent. One cannot succeed without the other. Both of them require, indeed urge, us to act. So that in this third millennium, which has only just begun, no child on our shared planet, regardless of gender or language or religion, shall be abandoned to hunger or ignorance, or turned away from the feast,” Le Clézio concluded.