Mathias Enard wins France’s top literary prize

Writer Mathias Enard won the Goncourt, France's top literary prize, on Tuesday in a race dominated by books about the West's love-hate relationship with Islam and the Arab world.

Mathias Enard wins France's top literary prize
Goncourt prize-winning author Mathias Enard. Photo: AFP
A scholar of both Arabic and Persian, Barcelona-based Enard, 43, wove a poetic eulogy to the long history of cultural exchanges between East and West in “Boussole” (“Compass”), and had been the critics' favourite for the award.
The novel has already won the booksellers' prize — the Nancy-Le Point — for its nimbly erudite voyage which flies in the face of many of the cliches about the so-called clash of civilisations.
Seven out of 16 critics polled by one of France's leading books weeklies said Enard — an academic who has lived in Tehran, Berlin and Beirut, where his breakthrough novel “Zone” (2008) is set — most “deserved” the prize, and he told reporters he was “extraordinarily happy” as the news of his win broke.
The four novels in the final reckoning for the Goncourt, the oldest and most prestigious in the French-speaking world, dealt in one way or another with the Middle East or the long twilight of France's colonial entanglement in the region.
Winner chosen over lunch 
“I like a winning book which tells of the world in which we live,” the head of the jury, Bernard Pivot, told French radio on the eve of the often-heated lunch at a Paris restaurant over which the winner is chosen.
Although the victor gets only 10 euros ($11) in prize money, the Goncourt almost guarantees a boost in sales of 450,000 copies or more, placing it instantly among the year's bestsellers.
As well as “Zone”, Enard's 2012 story of young Moroccans adrift in Europe “Street of Thieves” has already been translated into English.
But his “Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d'éléphants” (“Tell them of battles, kings and elephants”), which won the Goncourt's youth prize in 2010, France's second most lucrative literary award, has still to find a English-language publisher.
The Algerian writer Boualem Sansal was long the odds-on favourite for the prize but failed to make the top four last week with his dystopian vision of a future Islamic caliphate, “2084”, its title a nod to George Orwell's classic “1984”.
Sansal had the strong backing of Michel Houellebecq, France's most famous literary provocateur, himself a Goncourt winner in 2010, who praised the book's critique of “true Islamic totalitarianism”.
With Sansal out, many had thought the smart money was on “Les Preponderants” (roughly translated as “The Principals”), by veteran Franco-Tunisian author Hedi Kaddour.
'Cruel and stupid tyranny'
His novel, set in the Tunisia of the 1920s as resentment at French rule grows, was joint winner last week of the Academie Francaise prize, given by the lofty guardians of the French language known as the “immortals”, who rule over grammar and which new words enter their dictionary.
The fact that the Goncourt jury chose to reveal its final four novels in Tunis, where Kaddour, 70, was born, seemed also to indicate they were leaning his way.
Pivot said the highly symbolic announcement in the city's Bardo Museum, where jihadist gunmen killed 21 tourists and a policeman in an attack last March, was to show support for the country's fledgling democracy in the very place “where the most cruel and stupid tyranny had shown its contempt for freedom”.
Tobie Nathan's “Ce pays qui te ressemble” (“This country that you resemble”) was also said to have its fans on the jury, with its tales of the Jewish Cairo of his childhood and the lost idyll of the city's cosmopolitan tolerance.
The only woman on the shortlist, Nathalie Azoulai, also had a Middle Eastern twist to her pained love story “Titus n'aimait pas Berenice” (“Titus does not love Berenice”).
But there was better news for women in the parallel Renaudot prize, won by Delphine de Vigan, who was also the only female writer in contention, for “D'après une histoire vraie” (“From a true story”).
Only six women writers have ever won the Goncourt in its 112-year history, including Lydie Salvayre last year for “Pas pleurer” (“Don't cry”).

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.