The Nobel Prize goes to a cosmopolite

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Oh, those Swedes! Today the Nobel literary committee (to quote the Independent) "infuriated the bookies, delighted the bookish and thumbed its nose, again, at the American book industry" by awarding the 2008 Nobel Prize for literature to half-British, half-French novelist and philosopher Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio.

(Of course, in truth, the American world of letters already felt snubbed when, last week, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, suggested that US writers were too isolated and insular to merit a Nobel Prize.)

In selecting Le Clézio, the Nobel judges picked a true cosmopolite – albeit one with ties to the US. (He lives most of the year in Albuquerque, N.M.) Le Clézio, who is bilingual, was born in France to a Mauritian-born British doctor and his French wife. Le Clézio spent part of his childhood with his father in Africa and several years in the 1970s living with an Indian tribe in Panama. His wife, Jemia, is Moroccan.

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He has taught at universities around the world, including, most recently, two semesters teaching French language and literature at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

But when it comes to his sense of identity, Le Clézio is unambiguous. "The French language is my only country, the only place that I call home," he has said. He has also said that he once considered writing in English, but found it too "colonial."

Le Clézio is the first French writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature since Chinese-born Frenchman Gao Xingjian received the award in 2000. He is the 14th French man to be so honored since the Nobel Prizes began in 1901.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was quick to label Le Clézio's win a proof of France's global cultural influence. "A child in Mauritius and Nigeria, a teenager in Nice, a nomad of the American and African deserts, Jean-Marie Le Clézio is a citizen of the world, the son of all continents and cultures," Sarkozy said. "A great traveler, he embodies the influence of France, its culture and its values in a globalized world."

Le Clézio's works include novels, essays, and children's books. He has written about nomads, the desert, childhood memories, and the mythologies of native Americans. His best-known book is "Desert" (1980) which celebrates the simple nobility of a lost Tuareg civilization in the Sahara, even as it critiques European culture and French colonialism.

Le Clézio will receive a check for $1.4 million. He told reporters in Paris he felt "some kind of incredulity, and then some kind of awe, and then some kind of joy and mirth," when he heard the news.

But Le Clézio's initial reaction was incredulity, he must have quickly recovered. When the press asked him if he felt he deserved the prize, he had a simple response: "Why not?"

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