In an indirect tribute to neglected books, the selection committee awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature to the French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le ClÃ©zio, who has managed to be successfully ignored by most of the English-speaking reading public for the last forty-some years. But this neglect is understandable, at least in the eyes of Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, who told an Associated Press reporter, “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature …That ignorance is restraining.”
For a quick and admittedly crude assessment of where the US and UK stand with respect to other countries in the recognition of Monsieur Le ClÃ©zio’s work, I checked a variety of online bookstores to see how many of his books were currently in print and available for sale. Here are the results:
- US: 4, the most recent being Wandering Star, C. Dickson’s translation of his 1992 novel, Ã‰toile errante.
- UK: 0, unless you count the University of Chicago Press’ edition of The Mexican Dream: Or, the Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations, which is already in the US count.
- France: Over 25–the majority of his oeuvre.
- Germany: 2, including Der Afrikaner, a 2007 translation of his 2004 novel, L’Africain.
- The Netherlands: 1–In volle zee, a 2001 translation of his 1999 novel, Hasard.
- Spain: 4, half of these thanks to Tusquets Editores, which publishes La cuarentena (La quarantaine, 1993) and El pez dorado (Poisson d’or, 1994).
- Italy: 7, including Il Continente Invisible, published earlier this year by Instar Libri.
- Sweden: 4–like Germany, one of which (Afrikanen) is a translation of his 2004 novel, L’Africain.
Overall, this rough survey suggests that U.S. publishers are not doing too bad in keeping up with Le ClÃ©zio’s work, at least compared to other countries. And though his novels have never rated very high with any but a small circle of academics and fans of the avant-garde, the fact is that the Atheneum Press was a faithful supporter, issuing fine hardback editions of most of his major novels until the mid-1970s. With the celebrity of a Nobel on his side, Le ClÃ©zio is certainly back in demand, and there is a good chance that at least some of these now out-of-print English translations will be coming back. So, in spite of Mr. Engdahl’s assessment, the American publishing industry and reading public tends to be pretty responsive to the Nobel Committee’s championing of a neglected writer–certainly more than they are to this site’s!