The Kindly Frères Goncourt
Yesterday, the gods of the Goncourt looked down from their lofty perch and awarded their annual literary prize, the jewel of the saison des prix, to a most unlikely benecificiary.
And a New Yorker, at that.
Surprisingly, the reactions in the press have not been sour grapes at all; Jonathan Littell did write his massive tome in French, which makes him a Francophone writer as much as the next recipient (last year's went to the Belgian writer François Weyergans; in 1995 it went to the Russian writer Andreï Makine; in 1993 to the Lebanese-born Amin Maalouf, and so on).
The book [full admission: I have yet to read it], which purports to be the autobiography of an SS officer who reconstructs a quiet post-war life as a lacemaker in the north of France, has received mostly glowing reviews. But not entirely. Libération quotes Colette Kerber, the otherwise charming owner of the Marais bookshop Les Cahiers de Colette, "It's cut-and-paste docufiction, badly written [écrit avec les pieds]. To think they're comparing him to Grossman or Tolstoy!"
Still, although there are plenty of complaints about the way literary prizes are handed out, and the "vampirization of the rentrée," no one seems to mind that the new French literary golden boy is American. They're even having fun with his name: the best headline I've seen so far has to be Libération: "Littell assez grand pour le Goncourt".
Everyone knew Littell would win, anyway; for the last few months his book has generated a the kind of buzz that crops up when everyone is congratulating themselves on finishing a book rife with historical documentation that clocks in at 903 pages. Les Bienveillantes, or "The Kindly Ones," (which has already sold 250,000 copies) is being called an "unlikely bestseller" by people who don't understand that the book-buying public loves a challenge, especially one they can boast about to their friends.
And besides, Littell moved to France with his family in the 1970s and lived here pretty much without interruption (except to go to Yale) until his recent move to Barcelona. So he's like an honorary Frenchman, right?
Although the prize itself consists only of a symbolic 10 Euros (not to mention an unparalleled level of publicity), Littell should have no trouble finding his next meal: US rights were acquired by HarperCollins at Frankfurt for a reputed seven-figure sum.