The international takeover of French literature

The motives that guide the gaze of the literary world can be both unthinkingly loyal and randomly fickle. For while there are more sacred cows grazing on the lush pastures of literature's vast canonical steppe than there are dead ones hanging in Smithfield market, it doesn't take long for last year's big thing to fall off the shelves into the ignominy of remainderdom, replaced by a glut of more brightly coloured, aggressively marketed, bright young things.

This can happen to whole countries as well as individual authors. Take France, for example. Before the award of this year's Nobel prize for literature to the Franco-Mauritian JMB Le Clézio, the names of very few French authors were spoken outside specifically francophone confines, Michel Houellebecq and, to a much lesser extent, Amélie Nothomb aside. A glance down the list of Nobel literature laureates shows that since Sartre was offered, and refused, the prize in 1964,only Claude Simon (1984) and now Le Clézio have been French. Yet the first half of the century is crammed with French names, including Bergson, Gide, Sartre and Camus and even the very first prize, which went to the French poet and essayist Sully Prudhomme.

It is interesting then, with the Nobel prize returning the world's gaze to homegrown French literature once more, that the gaze of the French literary establishment seems in turn to have cast itself much more widely than is usual....

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