Going, going, Goncourt
This year's Prix Goncourt has been awarded to the forty-eight-year-old Alexis Jenni for his resonantly titled first novel, L'Art français de la guerre (Gallimard). The most prestigious prize in French publishing is worth the princely sum of 10 euros but guarantees healthy sales; the novel, which was widely praised on publication this autumn, has already sold 50,000 copies but the Goncourt can deliver sales in excess of 400,000.
This is not the first time in recent memory that a first novel has won the prize: Jean Rouaud's Les Champs d'honneur (largely about the First World War) did so in 1990 as did, more recently, Jonathan Littell's door-stopper Les Bienveillantes (2006), the fictional autobiography of an SS officer.
Jenni's triumph further confounds the vaguely held belief that French readers, critics and judges of literary prizes aren’t interested in historical novels. His book, over 600 dense pages long and epic in scale, spans the years 1943 to 1991, taking in the war in Algeria as well as France’s misadventures in Indochina. The 1991 cut-off date marks the first Gulf war.
Jenni, who teaches biology at a lycée in Lyon, describes himself as coming from a left-wing and anti-military family. He also charmingly suggests that he has up until now been a mere “écrivain du dimanche”. L’Art français de la guerre will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the TLS.