Once I had to attend a family hospital appointment. Waiting on green vinyl chairs in the hospital’s basement, I looked around at the nameplates on the doors of the consulting doctors. One had a long French first name, I don’t remember what. But the surname jumped out at me – Le Clézio! I wanted to rush into that room and shake the doctor’s hand: ‘You must be the son / daughter / nephew / other of the great JMG,’ I saw myself saying. ‘Tell him he’s got a reader on the south coast of England! Because I can’t imagine there are many of us!’ Of course I didn’t go running in like that. (The room was empty anyway). Instead I took down his volume of short stories, Fever, as soon as I got home. Another scan through. Jean-Marie Gustave has plenty of readers, in Europe, having brilliantly sustained his career since his 1963 debut, The Interrogation. Not to mention the small matter of winning that big Swedish gong in 2008.
Two aspects of Le Clézio’s writing that I find myself drawn to: first his rejection, at least in his fiction, of theorising. He isn’t a philosopher and doesn’t want to be one. Doesn’t feel the need to justify himself. That makes for a refreshing change from an intellectual class who often feel the need to speak in tautologies (the sense of a sentence is in the sentence of sense, etcetera). I can’t claim to be well read in modern French fiction, but this tedious little virus does seem to infect more lines than perhaps it ought to. And then, second, Le Clézio’s a camera, an X-ray machine. Microscopic-macroscopic. Straight out of left-field.
I’m not certain that ‘The World is Alive’ even is a story. There’s no protagonist. There’s no plot, and not one single story event. But oh boy, is there setting. Here he describes the method: “One has to go out into the country, like a Sunday painter… choose a deserted spot and look about for a long time. And then, when one has had a good look, one must take a sheet of paper and draw, in words, what one has seen.” (“All you have to do is look and describe,” said the great Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis once). And so we embark upon a description of a valley, a range of mountains, the fauna and flora within its folds, unlike anything you’ve ever read before. It’s as if a madman’s decided to catalogue every square millimetre he can see. Except the madman happens also to be an ant, or sometimes a bird, and happens also to be blessed with high-octane literary talents that he knows how to use. Now, who could say no to that?
(Claude Lévi-Strauss tried the same thing once, an exhaustive description of a sunset. I wonder if it’s a French thing?)
First published in French in Fièvre, Gallimard, 1965. First published in English in Fever, 1966; now available as a Penguin Modern Classic, 2008