For those Americans — and there may not be many — seeking great foreign authors who have yet to be discovered in English, the Nobel Prize judges present a fresh candidate: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, this year's winner of the literature prize.
Le Clezio, 68, was cited by the Swedish academy Thursday as an "author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization." His works include "Terra Amata," "The Book of Flights" and "Desert," a 1980 novel the academy said "contains magnificent images of a lost culture in the North African desert contrasted with a depiction of Europe seen through the eyes of unwanted immigrants."
Speaking to reporters in Paris, Le Clezio said he was very honored and the news left him feeling "some kind of incredulity, and then some kind of awe, and then some kind of joy and mirth."
Asked if he deserved the prize, he replied, "Why not?"
Le Clezio had been considered a strong contender and Thursday's announcement continued a decade-long trend of European and European-oriented authors receiving the Nobel, with recent winners including Britain's Doris Lessing and Harold Pinter, Austria's Elfriede Jelinek and Imre Kertesz of Hungary.
No American has won since Toni Morrison in 1993 and no American was expected to win — Le Clezio did put in a plug Thursday for Philip Roth.
Last week, Academy Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl told The Associated Press that the United States is too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world; Le Clezio may serve as Exhibit A.
A world traveler, especially of deserts, who has been ranked among France's greatest living writers, he is unknown to the U.S. public and to much of the U.S. literary community, even though he has a home in Albuquerque, N.M. Most of his books are unavailable in English and virtually all of those that have been translated are out of print, a common fate for writers from overseas.
"Unless the person being translated is extremely well known, the translation doesn't sell very well," says Judith Doyle, executive director of Curbstone Press, a Willmantic, Conn.-based publisher that in 2004 released the English version of Le Clezio's "Wandering Star," a novel about a French Jewish woman and a Palestinian woman.
Doyle said "Wandering Star" only sold about 1,500 copies, but expects that with the author "all of a sudden becoming known, we are going to print more."
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, less than 1 percent of non-English books end up being translated in the United States, a much smaller percentage than in European countries, says NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. He lists two reasons, one good and one bad.
"The good reason is that America is so large and so diverse that it is a full-time job to understand the ever-changing complexity of American cultural life," says Gioia, a poet who has translated 1975 Italian Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale into English. "The bad reason is that even most American intellectuals are monolingual."
The prize will almost surely raise sales for Le Clezio in English, but the Nobel bump is unlikely to last. Winners that sell best are those who write in English, including Morrison and V.S. Naipaul, or those already widely translated, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Guenter Grass. Jelinek, Dario Fo and other laureates obscure to U.S. readers before winning the Nobel still have tiny audiences in America.
Le Clezio has published several dozen books, including novels, stories and essays. The most famous — at least in France — are tales of nomads, meditations on the desert and childhood memories. He has also explored the mythologies of native Americans, who have long fascinated him. He was an experimental writer in his early years, compared to Alain Robbe-Grillet and other authors of the French "Nouveau Roman" (New Novel). But in the late 1970s, Le Clezio switched to a more intimate and traditional style.
"He has gone through many different phases of his development as a writer and has come to include other civilizations, other modes of living than the Western, in his writing," Engdahl said.
Even some of the most well-informed Americans acknowledged that they had not read him, including the NEA's Gioia; publisher Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which releases many books in translation; and Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, who strongly criticized Engdahl last week and suggested sending him a list of American writers.
"The best I can say is that I know somebody who has read him," Gioia said with a laugh.
One admirer, at least of his more challenging fiction, is Richard Howard, an award-winning poet who has translated many works from French, including a couple of early short stories by Le Clezio.
"He's a very gifted and remarkable writer. I loved the first books and I regard him with a great deal of respect and affection," Howard said, adding that he found Le Clezio's later works less interesting. "My attention flagged and I didn't go on reading him. I just thought he was another French writer I might turn to at another time."
Le Clezio was born in Nice in 1940 and at eight the family moved to Nigeria, where his father had been a doctor during World War II. They returned to France in 1950. Le Clezio tells the story of his father in the 2004 "L'Africain."
He studied English at Bristol University in 1958-59 and completed his undergraduate degree at the Institut d'etudes Litteraires in Nice. He went on to earn a master's degree at the University of Aix-en-Provence in 1964 and wrote a doctoral thesis on Mexico's early history at the University of Perpignan in 1983.
Besides the $1.4 million check, Le Clezio will also receive a gold medal and be invited to give a lecture at the academy's headquarters in Stockholm's Old Town.
The Nobel Prize in literature is handed out in Stockholm on Dec. 10 — the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896 — along with the awards in medicine, chemistry, physics and economics. The Nobel Peace Prize is presented in Oslo, Norway.