Gallic Literature II: French Nobel Prize Winners 1950-2010
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Gallic Literature II: French Nobel Prize Winners 1950-2010

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Updated: 4 October 2016
The second half of the 20th century was a tumultuous time in French culture and society; it saw the rise of existentialist thought, the fall of France’s overseas colonies and the intergenerational discord and protests of Paris 1968. All of this was reflected in French literature, and, as Claire Hayward discovers, French winners of the Nobel Prize were often implicated in these transformations.
François Mauriac

François Mauriac (Awarded 1952)

Nobel Prize Citation: ‘for the deep spiritual insight and the artistic intensity with which he has in his novels penetrated the drama of human life’.

Mauriac was born in Bordeaux, where he remained until he moved to Paris after graduating from the University of Bordeaux. He moved to Paris to continue study Literature at the École des Chartes, but soon became distanced from academia and instead became an independent writer. He first gained some fame in 1909 with a collection of poems titled Les Mains jointes (The Clasped Hands), but it was not until his 1922 publication Le Baiser aux Lepreux (A Kiss for the Leper) that he truly gained acclaim. The next 20 years saw him publish his greatest and most acclaimed works, including Thérèse Desqueyroux (Thérèse), La Fin de la nuit (The End of the Night), and La Pharisienne (A Woman of the Pharisees). He continued to publish novels and plays until his death in 1970, as well as working as a journalist and on a biography of Charles de Gaulle.


Albert Camus

Albert Camus (Awarded 1957)

Nobel Prize Citation: ‘for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.’

As much a philosopher as an author, Albert Camus had a lasting influence on the literature world, both French and otherwise. He was the first African-born winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, having been born in French Algeria. His work was influenced by his politics, including his communist and pacifist stances, but he is most noted for his philosophical idea of the absurd. Both Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus) and L’Etranger (The Stranger) detail this absurdism, with ‘the total absence of hope, which has nothing to do with despair, a continual refusal, which must not be confused with renouncement – and a conscious dissatisfaction’.

Camus was heavily involved with theatre work too, forming the Théâtre du Travail (Worker’s Theatre) in 1935, as well as writing and adapting many plays, including William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun. His literary career was brought to an end too soon, when, less than three years after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, he died in a car accident.


Saint-John Perse

Saint-John Perse (Awarded 1960)

Nobel Prize Citation: ‘for the soaring flight and the evocative imagery of his poetry which in a visionary fashion reflects the conditions of our time’.

Saint-John Perse was the pen name of Alexis Léger, a poet born in Guadalupe in 1887. He originally studied law at Bordeaux, no doubt influenced by his father and grandfather, both of whom were solicitors. He published his first book of poetry, Éloges, in 1911, but began a career in the diplomatic service in 1914. He first served in Peking, but held greater positions after he was noticed by the then Prime Minister of France, Aristide Briand.

He went on to settle in the USA, after losing his French citizenship under the Vichy regime in 1940. The majority of his poetry was written and published after this time, including the epics Excil (Exile), Plueies (Rains), Neiges (Snows) and Vents (Winds). He continued to write extensively after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1960, publishing amongst others, Oiseaux (Birds), Chant pour un équinoxe (Song for an Equinox). His personal archive was donated to research centre, Fondation Saint-John Perse, which remains active today – showing the lasting impact and importance of his literary outputs.


Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre (Awarded 1964)

Nobel Prize Citation: ‘for his work which, rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age’.

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris, 1905 and went on to become perhaps the most influential, and most well known philosophers of the twentieth-century. Aside from existential philosophy, he wrote extensively in the form of novels, screen plays, plays and biographies. His influence on the literary world was as significant as his philosophical work.

He had become a Professor of Philosophy in 1931, and since the end of World War Two lived as an independent writer. He had first found success just before World War Two, when his first novel La Nausée (Nausea) and collection of stories Le Mur (The Wall) were published in 1938. Both works are examples of Sartre’s existentialist themes of alienation and the importance of art. Further ideas of existentialism in his work can be seen in the series of novels, Le Chemins de la Liberté (The Roads to Freedom). As the Nobel Prize citation notes, his work is full of ideas; it is impossible to separate his incredible philosophy from his literature. Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize, as he did all prizes and honours, stating that, ‘a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution’.


Claude Simon

Claude Simon (Awarded 1985)

Nobel Prize Citation: ‘who in his novel combines the poet’s and the painter’s creativeness with a deepened awareness of time in the depiction of the human condition’.

Claude Simon was born to French parents in Madagascar, 1913. He was well educated, having studied in Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, as well as taking a course in painting at the André Lhote Academy. He was enlisted at the beginning of World War Two, and was captured by the Germans in 1940 at the battle of the Meus, an event which later influenced his 1960 work, La Route des Flandres (The Flanders Road). He managed to escape and joined the French Resistance. Simon then went on to finish his first novel, Le Tricheur (The Cheat), before the end of the War, which he had started several years before.

His works are considered to be one of the greatest representatives of the Nouveau Roman (New Novel) style that emerged in French literature in the 1950s. The style forsook traditional rules of literature by rejecting plot, narration and- especially in Simon’s case, punctuation. Though perhaps not immediately accessible, Simon’s work is a wonderfully readable and unique interpretation of his experiences of life.


J. M. G. Le Clézio

J. M. G. Le Clézio (Awarded 2008)

Nobel Prize Citation: ‘author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization’.

Jean-Marie Gustave le Clézio, born in 1940 in Nice but of French-Mauritian citizenship, first came into the public eye in 1963. He was awarded the Prix Renaudot for his first novel, Le Procès-verbal (The Interrogation). He had written extensively from a very young age, but had never been published before. Since that first novel, he has continued to publish novels as well as children’s books, essays and short fiction. He has also taught both French and literature across the world, and gained a Ph.D. with a thesis on early colonial Mexican history. Of his many publications, Désert (1980) is often considered his greatest success, and became the first winner of the Grand Prix Paul Morand, which was awarded by the Académie Française. His ability to span several genres of literature so successfully helps him stand out as one of the greatest French writers of all time.


By Claire Hayward



Images Courtesy: (1)Njal/WikiCommons (2)Unknown/WikiCommons (3)Nobel Foundation/WikiCommons (4)Unknown/WikiCommons (5)Nezza/WikiCommons (6)Holger Motzkau/WikiCommons