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Le Clezio, Portrait Of A Gentle Writer

Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clezio was born in France, but his work has been defined by his life of travel around the world.
Olivier Laban-Mattei
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Getty Images
Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clezio was born in France, but his work has been defined by his life of travel around the world.
Emmanuel Lenain reads from Le Clezio's 'The Prospector'

Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clezio's name had long been floated as a potential Nobel recipient, but when it was announced at the Swedish Academy last week you could hear the crowd's shock — and delight.

Born in France, Le Clezio is well-respected in the Francophone world, despite the fact that the author never really sought much attention.

"He's a gentle writer," says his biographer, Jennifer Waelti-Walters. "He never became one of those trendy French writers that the French all read, but [he was] always present in the literary mileau."

That presence was firmly established in 1963, when Le Clezio, who was 23 at the time, quietly submitted his first manuscript to a prestigious publishing house — then promptly won a top French literary award. He became an overnight sensation.

"He was very shy, really good-looking, tall and blonde," says Waelti-Walters. "He was a wonderful storyteller."

For Le Clezio, storytelling means melting into the background. In an interview on the Nobel Web site, he says, "A writer is not a prophet, is not a philosopher, he's just someone who is witness to what is around him."

The Nobel's permanent secretary described Le Clezio as a nomad, someone who does not belong anywhere, and yet moves from culture to culture, and writes in the space he creates between them.

Waelti-Walters says that Le Clezio's world is one of exiles, loners and refugees. She adds he's finely attuned to nature and has a "kind of 19th-century facility with words."

"He could draw a word painting of a storm, and you'd feel as though you got wet," she says.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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