The New Yorker Reader: “The Boy Who Had Never Seen The Sea,” by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

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10/23/2008 10:30 AM |

Not online because Le Cleeze is a hot commodity right now so buy the damn thing, or because of ambiguities over US rights.

Horace Engdahl knew exactly what he was doing calling us all insular — it got our attention, got us all riled up to see who won the Nobel, and whetted our appetite for a French writer virtually unknown to Americans. So here he is, just weeks after his Nobel win, with a story originally published in 1978, now in a brand-new (and impressive given its swiftness, I think) translation by the New Yorker‘s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, who contacted his publisher shortly after the Nobel was announced. In the magazine, the story is accompanied by a full-page photograph of hale, hearty J.M.G. striding manfully through a barren New Mexico landscape.

So, what about the story?

Remember when reading this that all stories told in the first person
are about their narrators first, their protagonists second. This is the
story of a schoolboy who runs away to live alone by the sea, and the
bulk of the story is comprised of densely visual, rapturous (though not
syntactically lyrical) descriptions of the boy, Daniel, and his
discovery of nature in all its strangeness — narrated by a barely-there
but definitely “I” schoolmate. So the story is just that, a story —
speculation, really, all the joy and sensuality and danger are
imaginings, even within the story. I was about two-thirds of the way
through when I realized that the title of the story refers not to the
protagonist but to the narrator.

This is, of course, far too small a sampling of a guy who’s written
forty-odd books for us to draw any conclusions, but the barely visible
postmodern framing of the story (“Surely,” the narrator begins one
passage, and doesn’t present his speculations as such, or otherwise
intrude, again) and memory-sensory-adventure do seem to integrate the
trajectory of Le Clézio’s career as I understand it — that he started
out with an interest in experimental fiction and gradually became more
engaged, through his wide travels, with the varieties of experience in
the world.

Stylistically I have even less of an idea — my tentative assessment of
his sentences, a couple paragraphs up, comes of course from Treisman’s
lickety-split translation and I wonder, not just whether this is a
typical Le Clézio story, but how much different a writer he will appear
to us when new English translations start to appear on our shelves, as
they must, get him while he’s hot.

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