STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We now know the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. And it should come as no surprise that this year's winner is European after comments last week in which a Nobel official called Europe, quote, "the center of the literary world," and referred to American literature as - what was it, NPR's Neda Ulaby?
NEDA ULABY: Isolated and insular.
INSKEEP: OK. And the winner then, the European winner is Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio. He is French. He is 68. He's written novels, short stories, essays, more than 30 books in fact. And tell us a little more about this winner, Neda.
ULABY: He was born in Nice. He moved to Africa with his doctor father and the rest of his family, of course, when he was a child. And that experience profoundly shaped his outlook and also his tastes. He went on to travel the world, and has been since. He got out of, well, he deferred his military service in France by teaching at a Buddhist university in Bangkok after which he lived with a Panamanian tribe...
INSKEEP: OK, certainly not insular here, then.
ULABY: No, not particularly at all. Since then he's, well, most recently he's been splitting his time between Central America, Europe, and the United States.
INSKEEP: OK. And when did he start writing in all of this?
ULABY: When he was 23 years old he sent his first manuscript to France's most prestigious publishing house. No agent, no fanfare, nothing. It's published. It becomes an overnight sensation, and he becomes this kind of literary rock star in France, which as you can imagine is pretty exciting. But he was so troubled by all of the publicity he received that for a while he was forbidding photographers to take pictures of him in close-up, because his privacy was so important to him.
INSKEEP: OK. Well now, what are some of the major themes in his writing that have now brought Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio the Nobel Prize?
ULABY: Well, as you can imagine, he grew up reading Sartre and Camus. And when he was younger that was a very pronounced influence in his work.
INSKEEP: The great French writers, sure.
ULABY: Indeed. He was also compared to J.D. Salinger when he was younger. His protagonists tend to be loners finding ways of coping with modern life and ennui technology. They come into conflict with urban surroundings. There are recurring themes of blindness and light. In one of his novels, the character is so depressed, he goes to a beach, lies down in the sand, and blinds himself by staring into the sun.
INSKEEP: Ennui, that means boredom. Is that right?
ULABY: I believe so.
INSKEEP: OK, so he's talking about people that are trying to deal with some of the depression of modern life. How does he fit in then with other Nobel laureates?
ULABY: Like Elfriede Jelinek, he is a very experimental writer. But one of the things that he has in common with a lot of the more recent Nobel winners is that he works through political problems in his books. But there's something a little bit more mystical about him. He writes about language not just as a tool through which people can be dominated, but a way that people can open themselves to the cosmos.
INSKEEP: Oh. Well let's see if the Nobel Committee is able to open itself to the cosmos here. After these remarks - that we've made fun of, a little bit here, this European person on the Nobel Committee saying that Europe is the center of the world, that Americans, for example, are insular - is there any pressure then - is there going to be any pressure to name a non-European next time around, do you think?
ULABY: You know, I think it'll just be interesting in terms of geographical diversity to have a non-European. There's intense political pressure on the Nobel Committee. But the permanent secretary of the Nobel seemed to backtrack a little bit when he made the announcement this morning. He said that Le Clezio is not a typically French writer. He called him a bit of a nomad. He said that writers are more and more difficult to place in terms of nationality. They are people who find stimulation, he said, in displacing themselves from their cultural origins.
INSKEEP: As long as they're European, of course.
INSKEEP: Just one question, Neda Ulaby. If there's a book I want to rush out now and read of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, is there one that's easily available in the United States?
ULABY: There are. Many of them are. "Interrogation," his first novel, is the one that I would begin with.
INSKEEP: NPR's Neda Ulaby, thanks very much.
ULABY: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: She's bringing us up to date on news that the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.