Thursday, October 26, 2006

An American wins prestigious French literary awards

For the French Academy, (L’Académie Française, the prestigious French learned body which has set the standards of what constitutes proper French since 1635) to give an award to a foreigner is highly unusual, but to give it to an American is worthy of being reported here.

Today, Johnathan Littell, an American writer who writes in French won the Grand Prix du Roman de l'Académie Française, one of the most prestigious literary awards in France for his novel "Les Bienveillantes,'' (which could be translated by "The Kindly Ones").

His novel has been a literary sensation in France and sold 230,000 copies, almost 20 times the original expectations of its Paris-based publisher, Gallimard. Not bad for a first novel in French (of 903 pages and 1.15 kilograms in weight) which presents the point of view of a Nazi insider.

Granted, Littell is an unusual American to say the least. He is the son of Robert Littell, a spy novelist who settled in France. He has spent most of his life in France and passed the French baccalaureate diploma. He now lives in Barcelona.

Littell chose French for this book, which took him five years to research and write. "The only useful clue I can give is the fact that my literary culture really is French,'' he said. "When I look for literary direction, I look to France -- to writers like Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and, of course, Flaubert.''

"It depends on which language the thought comes in, what I have been reading,'' said Littell, who also speaks Russian and Serbo-Croatian. "I dream in every language I know." (Bloomberg)

The NYTimes reported the bids for the publication of the novel in the US and some publishers called it a "very disturbing and very shocking masterpiece". Littell made some interesting remarks:

"Unlike American editors, French editors don't presume to interfere with content,'' he said. Instead, he and Millet went after pesky "Anglicisms,'' some of which still popped up in the published book.

To read that there were some "Anglicism" is great comfort to the rest of us who tend to mix two languages!

Littell, a descendant of Polish Jews, says he approached the book from a European perspective, but believes it has relevance for the U.S., particularly after the government allowed the use of torture in the interrogation of terror suspects.

"The basic thesis of the book, or rather its hypothesis, is that the barriers to mass killing are not individual but societal,'' said Littell. ``Once the state loosens the constraints against torture, there is never any shortage of torturers.'' (Bloomberg)

So far, the novel has been sold in Germany, but not yet in an English-speaking country.

NOTE: Jonathan Littell was twice refused French citizenship, even though he has spent much of his life in France. "I don't think they will refuse me now,'' said Littell in an Oct. 3 interview at a Paris apartment owned by Gallimard.
When he sent his manuscript to French publishers last year, he used the name Jean Petit, masking his U.S. nationality behind an obvious French pseudonym.(Bloomberb)

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