The Goncourt prize 2013 . . . and 1913
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
This year’s Prix Goncourt (France’s most prestigious literary prize, value €10) has gone to Au Revoir là-haut by Pierre Lemaitre (published by Albin Michel). The novel is set in post-First World War France, where, according to Macha Séry’s description of it in Le Monde this week, “impostors triumphed and capitalists got rich on the ruins”. One of the judges, Bernard Pivot, praised the “cinematographic” qualities of the novel. Lemaitre has up until now been a successful author of that very French genre, the polar. His new book, which has already sold 40,000 copies since publication in August, could hit sales of 400,000 on the back of the prize – that, at least, is the average sale figure for winning books.
One of the ten judges, Pierre Assouline, has just published an entertaining history of the prize: Du Côté de chez Drouant: Cent dix ans de vie littéraire chez les Goncourt (Gallimard). The title refers to the restaurant where the judges traditionally meet for their deliberations.
The Académie Goncourt, Assouline tells us, was set up by the Goncourt brothers as a counter to Richelieu’s Académie française. Assouline insists that there is no “style Goncourt” although the existence of the adjective “goncourable” to suggest a book ideally suited to win the prize (in the way that some novels seem like obvious Booker Prize material) would seem to indicate otherwise. When Alexis Jenni’s novel L’Art français de la guerre was published in August 2011, I immediately had a hunch that it would win the Goncourt, and sure enough it did: a big book with an arresting title, chronicling France’s troubled history in Indochina and Algeria, written by a lycée prof in Lyon – it ticked all the boxes.
When one of the judges Michel Tournier was smeared with tomato ketchup one year as he emerged from the Drouant it was in protest at a perceived stitch-up (it should be said that Tournier has always seemed the most independent-minded of reader-critics): the judges (and judges of other book prizes) have in the past been accused of pandering to the big three Parisian publishing houses, Gallimard, Grasset and Seuil, known as “galligrasseuil” (a mot-valise). By my calculations they have walked away with 56 of the 110 Goncourts, many of those going to Gallimard, whose pre-eminence in French publishing has no equivalent in Britain or the US. Editions de Minuit traditionally don’t submit their books for prizes, which didn’t prevent Marguerite Duras from winning the Goncourt in 1984 with L’Amant. The Goncourts stipulated that the prize should go to youngish authors, but Duras was 70 – maybe it was more of a lifetime achievement award. The celebratory lunch at the Drouant was attended by her friend President François Mitterrand.
Just as the astonishment at the award of the Booker to Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner in 1984 ahead of Martin Amis’s Money can never quite subside (who were the judges that year?), the Goncourt judges excelled themselves by garlanding Paule Constant’s tame Confidence pour confidence in 1998 ahead of Michel Houellebecq’s masterpiece Les Particules élémentaires. When Houellebecq won in 2010 with La Carte et le territoire, one of the judges Patrick Rambaud apparently didn’t like the book but voted for it “so that the Goncourt can be done with Houellebecq once and for all”.
Assouline, a novelist himself, as well as being a prolific biographer, critic and blogger, has only recently joined the panel of judges. He’s in for a long haul: over its 110-year history there have been a mere 58 judges (very different from the Booker Prize, for example, which calls on five new judges every year). Assouline lists the ten couverts or places (imagine a large round table), of which he occupies the tenth. His predecessor, Françoise Mallet-Joris, was in situ for 41 years. The distinguished cast has included J.-K. Huysmans, Colette – it’s worth pointing out at this point that only eight women have won the prize, and that one of them, Edmonde Charles-Roux, who won in 1966, has been a judge since 1983 and is now présidente) – Jean Giono, Louis Aragon, Raymond Queneau and Michel Tournier, who stood down after 38 years in 2010 (that looks like him on his feet with arm raised in the photo below, taken in 1978). Tournier was himself a winner in 1970 with Le Roi des aulnes.
I thought it would be interesting to check out the novel that won the prize a hundred years ago; somebody else must have had the same idea, because it has been reissued in an anniversary edition: Le Peuple de la mer by Marc Elder (not to be confused with the British conductor Mark Elder) is published by Marivole who tell the reader that the book bested Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (true) and Proust’s Du Côté de chez Swann (not true). Assouline points out that one of the judges, J.-H. Rosny talked about a “livre de grande valeur”, but that it stood no chance as Proust didn’t submit it to the judges.
Elder’s novel is set in a fishing community in Noirmoutier on the west coast of France, where the wind sweeps across the dunes of the Vendée. Life is hard and precarious – fishing boats are regularly lost at sea, and in a grim foretaste of the carnage to come, these sacrifices are made in the name of “Honneur-Patrie”; heavy drinking is rife and there is much energetic coupling in the dunes: “Les belles nuits de printemps et d’été, les filles et les gars se rejoignent dans les falaises de la Corbière, sitôt passé les dernières maisons du village. Les filles qui poussent en plein vent sur ce coin d’île ont les joues tannées, les mains rudes, les muscles forts, le sang chaud. A partir de la puberté, ells portent le désir éclatant dans leurs yeux et le remuent autour des reins parmi les jupes”.
The book is rich in local dialect and nautical and marine terminology: among words I don’t recall coming across before are “le coaltar” (coal tar), “la salicorne” (samphire or saltwort) and “la yole” (skiff or yawl). I enjoyed the book, and learnt from it.