Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Insider's Perspective: Existentialism For Beginners

Photograph. Click to enlarge.

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio in 1976 during his time as a scholar in residence at The University of Texas at Austin.

Book. Click to enlarge.

Cover of Le Clézio's first book, Le Procès-verbal.

Several decades before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2008, novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio spent a month in residence at The University of Texas at Austin. While staying in Austin during the fall of 1976 as part of the Visiting French Scholars program, Le Clézio met with students and faculty and taught part of a seminar course on modern French literature. His correspondence with members of the University's Romance Languages Department resides at the Center as part of the Carlton Lake collection, an archive of French literature, art, and music widely considered to be the finest collection of modern French research materials outside of Paris. Included in this correspondence is Le Clézio's lengthy proposed reading list for the seminar, reprinted below.

Typically identified as J. M. G. Le Clézio, the Franco-Mauritian author was born in Nice, France, in 1940. On a month-long voyage by boat to Nigeria, the precocious eight-year-old Le Clézio penned his first works, Un long voyage and Oradi noir; the latter included an ambitious list of his "forthcoming books." At the age of 23 his first published novel, Le Procès-verbal (published in English as The Interrogation), won widespread literary acclaim and garnered the young author a Prix Renaudot award, as well as a nomination for the highly prestigious Prix Goncourt.

Despite the difficulty, then as now, of promoting often lesser-known foreign authors in the American literary market, the book was rushed into translation and published in 1964 by Atheneum Books. Knopf had also shown great interest in the book, and in a letter from the Center's Knopf collection, Blanche Knopf writes to Le Clézio's Paris publishers: "Remember I have not read Le Clézio but have great belief in this young man. Maybe the first book to be published will not sell, but maybe he will be what the French have been telling me—the coming Camus. Yes?"

This comparison to Camus is one that has followed Le Clézio throughout his writing career, and likely stems from the style, themes, and setting of many of his works. Le Procès-verbal, a novel of distinctly existentialist cant, is located in a Camusian land of desert and sea, and depicts the absurdity and emptiness of the life of an amnesiac marginalized from his society by a lack of human contact. Similarly, the 1980 novel Désert, often cited as Le Clézio's finest work (and only published for the first time in English in September 2009), explores the lives of nomads in the Moroccan Sahara in the aftermath of colonialism, all the while presenting a vehicle for his poetic, sprawling tribute to the desert land itself. Le Clézio's work has consistently reflected his extensive international travels, studies of non-Western cultures, and ecological engagement. Correspondence and photographs of Le Clézio can be found in the Carlton Lake collection, for which a finding aid is available online.

Several other Nobel Laureates are represented in the Ransom Center's collections, including Doris Lessing (2007), Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978), Samuel Beckett (1969), John Steinbeck (1962), Ernest Hemingway (1954), T. S. Eliot (1948), George Bernard Shaw (1925), and William Butler Yeats (1923).

—Jesse Cordes Selbin


Le Clézio's proposed reading list for the seminar on modern French literature included the following works: