#Marina Warner, President of the Royal Society of Literature, announcing the arrival of the Choix Goncourt in the UK, said: “When the date of this event was set, nobody knew that a crucial election would be taking place. In the light of what has happened, I feel alarmed and frightened of the future. I am therefore proud to be marking a moment of Franco-British solidarity. The spirit of European culture built on the common ground of imagination and a long intertwined history is under strain, but it shall not be broken . . .”
Ms Catherine Colonna, French Ambassador to the UK opened with the statement: “Le livre est la première industrie culturelle française.” Within the cultural industries of France that publish, produce and disseminate cultural goods and services — books, journalism, short and feature-length films, TV programmes, video games etc — books lead the way.
Unless an English-language publisher specialises in translations and has readers and scouts on the lookout, foreign titles are generally brought to their attention by foreign rights representatives from the original-language publisher, or agents, selling World English Language rights at trade book fairs. An alternative source is keeping an eye on literary prizes and the writing careers of well-reviewed, consistently-selling literary prizewinners on their home turf.
“A book is never a masterpiece it becomes one thanks to its readers,” Edmond & Jules de Goncourt
Since 1903, the Prix Goncourt has been awarded to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. It is the most prestigious award in the French literary calendar. (The other key players being the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, the Prix Femina, the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Interallié and the Prix Médicis.)
There are four spin-off awards in France: the prix Goncourt du Premier Roman (first novel), prix Goncourt de la Nouvelle (short story), prix Goncourt de la Poésie (poetry), prix Goncourt de la Biographie (biography).
While abroad, there is the Choix Goncourt: a clever way to promote French literature in fifteen countries, including Belgium, China, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Lebanon, Morocco, Poland, Rumania, Spain, Switzerland . . . The jury comprises a group of students from the French departments at universities across each country.
Last Friday, the Choix Goncourt was awarded for the first time in the UK at a ceremony held at French Ambassador’s private residence in Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8. Students from the French departments at seven universities — Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, Cardiff, Aberdeen, St Andrews, Queen’s University Belfast — convened at the Royal Society of Literature in London to discuss the Académie Goncourt’s shortlist and select the winner.
The Choix Goncourt UK shortlist:
La part du fils by Jean-Luc Coatalem (Éditions Stock)
Tous les hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon by Jean-Paul Dubois (Éditions de l’Olivier). Also the winner of this year’s Prix Goncourt.
Soif by Amélie Nothomb (Éditions Albin Michel)
Extérieure Monde by Olivier Rolin (Éditions Gallimard)
I spoke to Julia Moore, one of the student judges from Oxford University, and she told me: “We all read the books over six weeks then we met . . . We had varied approaches towards the judging criteria, some of us were philosophical, some were contextual, some read purely for fun and pleasure since the books are good literary fiction rather than academic . . . I really enjoyed it.”
Ultimately Jean-Paul Dubois came out on top, with his winning novel Tous les hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon, featuring two cell mates — Paul Hansen the former concierge, caretaker and factotum of an apartment block, and Horton, a Hell’s Angel inside for murder — whose perceptions of the world around us are very different. It was closely followed by La part du fils by Jean-Luc Coatalem. Dubois will be published by MacLehose Press in the UK.
For exploratory readers of this feature, some of the other winners of this year’s Choix Goncourt include:
Poland and Switzerland : Mur Méditerranée by Louis-Philippe Dalembert (Sabine Wespieser)
Belgium and Rumania : Le Ghetto intérieur by Santiago H Amigorena (POL)
China : Frère d’âme by David Diop (Éditions du Seuil). Also the winner of this year’s Prix Goncourt des Lycéens
Edmond de Goncourt bequeathed his fortune in honour of his deceased brother, Jules, to the founding of the Académie Goncourt in order to promote literature in France. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, the Goncourt brothers: “Invented a new kind of novel, and their novels are the result of a new vision of the world, in which the very element of sight is decomposed, as in a picture of Monet. Seen through the nerves, in this conscious abandonment to the tricks of the eyesight, the world becomes a thing of broken patterns and conflicting colours, and uneasy movement. A novel of the Goncourts is made up of an infinite number of details, set side by side, every detail equally prominent. While a novel of Flaubert, for all its detail, gives above all things an impression of unity, a novel of the Goncourts deliberately dispenses with unity in order to give the sense of the passing of life, the heat and form of its moments as they pass. It is written in little chapters, sometimes no longer than a page, and each chapter is a separate notation of some significant event, some emotion or sensation which seems to throw sudden light on the picture of a soul. To the Goncourts humanity is as pictorial a thing as the world it moves in; they do not search further than ‘the physical basis of life,’ and they find everything that can be known of that unknown force written visibly upon the sudden faces of little incidents, little expressive moments. The soul, to them, is a series of moods, which succeed one another, certainly without any of the too arbitrary logic of the novelist who has conceived of character as a solid or consistent thing. Their novels are hardly stories at all, but picture-galleries, hung with pictures of the momentary aspects of the world.” [Wikipedia]
To get a feel for the life and times of the Goncourt brothers during the Belle Epoque, read The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes. “The past liberates us from the shallowness of our absorption in the present, and reminds us that we always know less than we think about what we’re doing,” Tessa Hadley, The Guardian
The supreme power of words
“If you want to make a child intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want to make them more intelligent read them more fairy tales,” Einstein said, in other words they contain age-old, timeless wisdom. Charles Perrault was French and the brothers Grimm German. We have them to thank for Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, Tom Thumb, The Twelve Dancing Princesses . . . along with so many others.
Recent government policies have been disastrous for learning language skills — for example teaching a second language at secondary school is now optional. So as an intelligence booster you could try out Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde:Fairy Tales and their Tellers and its follow up, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale. They make for especially interesting, resonant reading given the current monstrous crop of ogres, ghouls and bluebeards strutting about the political world stage right now.
The Choix Goncourt UK is organised by the Higher Education, Research and Innovation Department of the French Embassy and the Institut Français du Royaume-Uni, in collaboration with the Maison française d’Oxford and with the support of the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie. The project is carried out in partnership with the bookstore La Page, the oldest French bookstore in London.
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