A Writer Is Mr. or Mrs. Everyone: A Conversation with J.M.G. Le Clézio

  • onSeptember 26, 2017
  • Vol.37 Autumn 2017
  • byChoi Mikyung


The theme of the 2017 Seoul International Forum for Literature, co-hosted by the Daesan Foundation and Arts Council Korea in May, was “Literature and Its Readership in the Changing World.” Fourteen foreign literary luminaries, including Nobel laureates Svetlana Alexievich and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, and thirty-six Korean dignitaries, including Hwang Sok-yong, Hwang Sun-mi, Jeong You Jeong, Kim Hyesoon, Kim Seong-Kon, Ko Un, and Lee Seung-U, attended the event. J.M.G. Le Clézio spoke to KLN about literature, its globalization, and South Korea’s past and present during his visit to Seoul.

Choi Mikyung: They call you the “nomadic writer” because of your love of nature—of Mauritius, Africa, and Mexico. Your books are often set in the desert, on the sea, or on islands. But you also enjoy visiting Seoul. What is it that draws you to this metropolis?

J.M.G. Le Clézio: I come from a nomadic family. They left France at the time of the revolution to move to a distant land and grow sugar. My father spent his entire life outside France. I was brought up with the idea that leaving is a natural thing to do. Leaving has always been my life, the purpose of my existence. It is something I always had to do.
When it came to literature, I particularly enjoyed reading travelogues, adventure stories, and dictionaries, especially illustrated dictionaries from the end of the nineteenth century. I remember, as a child, seeing illustrations of China and Korea. Korea was under Japanese rule. It had been predicted that when the two dragons of Seoul woke up, Korea would be free. I’m in South Korea now, and it’s a free country. I think the two dragons of Seoul have woken up.
I’ve been to China, a country that’s too big to claim to know well. With Korea, I’ve found a country roughly the size of my own, France, and with a very similar history to that of France. These days France has the same problem with the US as South Korea has with China: a large, overbearing neighbor constantly asserting its presence. I grew up in France feeling that my origins lay in the colonial era, but at the same time that I was a citizen of a country living under the threat of cultural domination.

Choi: You have chosen to write in French when you could have written in English. Why choose French rather than English, a globally dominant language that would have brought you an even larger readership?

Le Clézio: You don’t choose your language. I was born in France and grew up in the French education system. My father may have been an English speaker, but I learned to express myself in French. My mother was a great lover of French literature. I was educated in this language. It’s not something you choose. On the contrary, I’d say it’s an inability to choose. This was the language that was given to me. I’m very fond of this language, and I’m very fond of the literature that represents it. Language is not just a tool for communication. It’s a tool for representing the world. I’ve sought to convey the world using the French language, not the English language. But I’m very fond of the English language. I can read in English as well as I can in French, even if my spoken English isn’t as good. I’ve tried writing in English. But to me English is more the language of detective stories. I even tried writing one in English. I sent it to a publisher in London but it didn’t work out. So I write in French because of the impossibility of me writing in any other language.

Choi: You’ve been a professor at Ewha Womans University (you’re also a fellow of the Ewha Academy), and whenever you return to South Korea you choose to stay at the International House, a student residence. They say you even have your “own” room there. Is that a way of staying closer to young people? Or expressing your anti-consumer culture side?

Le Clézio: I suppose it’s both. And also because Ewha is a very beautiful place. You mentioned nature, and it’s very important to me that Ewha is still surrounded by pine forests and some very beautiful vegetation, even if there used to be more of it. In August, when it rains, you can see water running on the slopes. You’re really surrounded by nature.

Choi: Do you use your time at Ewha to write?

Le Clézio: Yes, of course. My room at Ewha is like a monk’s cell. There are no decorations. When I look out of the window, I see the wall opposite. There’s no scenery for me to look at. That kind of austerity, which I actually find rather comfortable, is perfect for writing.

Choi: It’s a sort of retreat . . .

Le Clézio: . . . a sort of retreat with, especially on a rainy day, the sound of the rain on the roof, the smell of plants, and everything that nature represents. And at the top of the hill there’s a small Buddhist temple that I visit. It’s very pretty.

Choi: You’re the author of a rich and varied oeuvre, expressing criticism of urban civilization and the materialist West. Compared to your earlier work, which was more dissenting and rebellious, your recent work seems calmer, more serene. How do you explain this change?

Le Clézio: I think I lived a sequestered life for a long time. I was locked inside my own obsessions, but also literally shut away, barely leaving the room where I wrote in my parents’ apartment in Nice. I was locked inside ideas too. I thought literature was like a weapon. There was this need to fight . . . but against what? After a while, I realized I wasn’t fighting against anything. Because the purpose of literature is not to wage war. The purpose is to find the most truthful expression. I began writing in a more classical style, because it’s more appropriate for what I want to express.

Choi: Korean society has certain problems—employment issues, generational divisions, gender divisions, and so on. These are difficulties found in other countries too. In France, there’s unemployment, the terrorist threat, the sluggish economy, and so on. What role can we expect literature and writers to play in the face of such issues?

Le Clézio: First, I think we need to reconsider that view of the modern world. The economic crisis affecting developed countries like South Korea or France should be considered in relation to what many other countries are going through. Cambodia, Vietnam, African countries, even some European countries have been dealing with underemployment for much longer. On Mauritius it’s not 10 percent but 60 percent of the population that is unemployed. And those who do have work are only in casual jobs. Even more serious is the question of identity. In France, identity is unfortunately constructed in opposition to immigrants and those identified as “non-indigenous.” And that invariably leads to populism and nationalism, which represent a great threat to literature and culture. Believing that a culture is something fixed, that some cultures are authentic while others aren’t—that’s the biggest danger. We need to view culture as something in motion, like a wave. In South Korea, things are changing, and I think the changes are largely positive. In Europe, it’s much harder for the wave to keep moving, because this notion of national identity has in a sense crystallized. I hope South Korea isn’t going to develop a similar malaise of national identity. In fact, writers are part of what keeps culture moving. Their role is not to regurgitate things that have already been repeated ad nauseam, but to invent new forms, to be inspired by others, to read what others have written. We need to read lots—the French need to read Korean literature, Koreans need to read Italian literature, and so on.

Choi: In an interview with a French magazine, you’re quoted as saying: “I feel like a little speck on this planet, and literature allows me to express that. If you want to get philosophical, you might say I’m a poor old Rousseauist without a clue.” Literature as the mouthpiece of little things and quiet voices—that seems to mirror the statement from the Nobel committee, who awarded their 2008 prize to “the author of poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.”

Le Clézio: Those Nobel people are very kind, dishing out adjectives like that. I think the purpose of literature is not to express grand ideas but to share sensations and experiences. Writers are just like everyone else. They are a kind of Mr. or Mrs. Everyone. There’s nothing else to them, except that they toil away with their pen or computer in an attempt to put their sensations into order. It’s a philosophy which gave rise to phenomenology in Europe, and I believe it can be found in the East too. In other words, it’s the ability to be attentive to sensations, to the feeling of existing. It’s here in Buddhism. These small-scale experiences of life are crucial. They constitute our being.

Choi: Korean literature has to go through the process of translation to reach a foreign readership, which brings us to the issue of literature in a globalized world. In 1977 you published a translation of the Prophéties du Chilam Balam (Prophecies of Chilam Balam), a Mayan mythological work. From your experience of translation, what is your advice for translators?

Le Clézio: Before publishing that text, I traveled around Yucatán with that book, by truck, by bus, sometimes on foot. I would read passages out to people to see if this ancient text was still alive, and I found that it was. When I wrote the translation, I tried to correct my own ideas and inaccuracies by gauging them against the people I spoke to. For literary texts, it’s a little different. When you translate Saint-Exupéry, for example, you don’t need to fly a plane to understand what he’s talking about, and you don’t need to travel by boat to translate Conrad. The main thing is to come into contact with the languages you’re translating, master them fully, which is always going on a journey, moving from one country to another. A journey that takes place via books or research.

Choi: These days it seems that no matter how good a book is, it will be doomed to obscurity unless it appears on broadcast media, preferably television. But literary programs are rare, and the fact that Korean authors need to be accompanied by an interpreter seems a major hurdle. What can be done?

Le Clézio: We shouldn’t be alarmed if a book doesn’t find its readership straight away. Books are not instant objects. Books can wait. Success might not even come during the author’s lifetime. Of course it’s better if it comes earlier, but literature is not a place for immediacy. It’s not just a medium, and its purpose is not just to communicate information. I’d even say it’s quite reassuring if a book has trouble getting known. There’s something suspicious about a book that is immediately successful. Either it’s not very original, or there’s been too much hype or advertising, which is a kind of deception. Literature is like wine—it needs to age a little in the bottle.

Choi: You have often discussed Korean literature (for example, Hwang Sok-yong in your Nobel prize acceptance speech). What is it that draws you to Korean literature?

Le Clézio: It’s not exoticism that I’m interested in. Perhaps it’s the sensibility. I believe Korean culture is a culture of emotion and feeling. Feelings are very important in Korea. Some of them can’t even be translated into French. The feeling of han is so strong in Korea that you can’t simply talk about a desire for “revenge” or a sense of “remorse.” The meaning is much stronger than that. It’s the same with jeong, the feeling of “existing together.” It’s not just love, it’s something else—an awareness that you share the same destiny. When I read Korean literature, I always feel there is this underlying cohesion. You can read texts as different as those of Kim Ae-ran and Lee Seung-U and still pick up on this common sentiment, which I think has its basis in the subtle expression of feelings. I like that a lot. It’s not inherited from Confucianism, it comes from further back, perhaps drawing on animism. Sharing with nature. You feel that when you read it.

Choi: South Korean literature has carved itself a small niche in the French publishing world. Authors like Hwang Sok-yong and Lee Seung-U can be found in mass-market paperback editions. Han Kang, Kim Young-ha, Oh Junghee, Eun Heekyung, Kim Ae-ran, and Kim Yeonsu have all been published. But there is still a huge imbalance compared to the number of French texts translated and distributed in South Korea. What can we do to improve the balance?

Le Clézio: First of all, clearly, we have to keep going. Literature is a constant struggle. We need to ensure that Korean literature becomes known outside a small circle of enthusiasts. Publishers have an important role to play—translations shouldn’t be relegated to a linguistic ghetto.
I also think magazines like Korean Literature Now play a very important role in increasing awareness of Korean literature outside the country. But you’re right to highlight that imbalance, because it’s real. It’s an imbalance that arises because of how languages are valued in the world. South Korea is not a colonialist country. It has no empire, it’s a country that lives within its own limits. And if they’re engaged in any kind of conquest, it’s a peaceful one, by means of trade. We need to be patient. Literature will play an important role in correcting this linguistic imbalance. People are going to become more and more familiar with the Korean language, especially since it’s a beautiful and very logical language and therefore appealing to learn.

Choi: Young Korean authors have a more and more open take on the world—they’re not just talking about things rooted in Korean culture any more. That’s a positive development, unlike the nationalism you were just describing. But in striving for a more universal representation of the world, their literature loses some of its specifically Korean quality, its “Koreanness.” I get the impression that French publishers are more reluctant to publish it.

Le Clézio: You’re completely right. I’ve worked myself as a reader at a publisher—Gallimard, as it happens. I remember suggesting some translations from Korean or Chinese, I don’t remember, it was a long time ago. They told me: “Sure, but there’s no local color.” I said to them: “When you publish books in France for French people, do you look for local color above all else? Do you want characters with a baguette under their arm and the Eiffel tower in the background?” It’s ridiculous. I think the Koreanness you’re talking about is modern Koreanness. And it no longer has anything to do with exoticism. What is still there, and what we should be drawn to, is this subtlety in the expression of feelings, which goes back to classical poetry, especially female poetry, which created a literature of analysis. I think that’s the identity of this literature. It doesn’t lie in exoticism, in the “morning calm” or the sound of a gong at night, but in this analytical quality, and that’s why I believe Korean literature will make a name for itself as an avant-garde literature. That’s been the case with Han Kang, who has been very successful in the United States, a lot more than in France, because she speaks a language that Americans can understand—a sensual language, expressing some very strong feelings.

Choi: At the press conference you recently gave to the Korean press, you talked about your plan to publish a novel set in Seoul. I think that when French readers discover this book, even if it leaves a lot to the imagination, it will be a wonderful promotion not just for the country but also for its literature. Could you tell us more about it?

Le Clézio: I’m not what people call a “travel writer.” I would never be able to write about South Korea or Seoul in response to some requirement or request. But for a long time I’ve wanted to convey something of my experiences of life here. I’ve stayed in Seoul a while—not a very long time, but still quite a while. And I’ve met lots of people, I’ve spoken to lots of very different people, I’ve traveled around Seoul by bus, metro, and on foot. It’s given me a feeling for Seoul, which I’ve found inspiring in terms of putting together a novel. But I don’t want to write a realist novel. The novel I’m currently writing is definitely not a travel guide. And the reader may even wonder whether it’s set in Seoul. I’ve gone as far as inventing the names of Korean streets and districts to prevent them from being identified. My idea is to convey these everyday experiences of Seoul and the ability of its inhabitants to invent their city. Seoul is a challenging place, and getting around is a complex task. It’s not a dangerous city, but you’re constantly assailed by modernity here. I’ve discovered a capacity for resistance among its inhabitants—a specifically Korean kind of resistance, which takes place in the imagination. So I used my own imagination and invented stories.

Choi: I had imagined that if you were going to write something about Korea, it would be about the island of Jeju. That’s because it’s an island rich in myths and legends, where you discovered the haenyeo. You’re also an honorary citizen of the island and visit it often. Weren’t you there again yesterday?

Le Clézio: Yes, but there is also a literary heritage on Jeju. People write a lot on Jeju. A lot of poetry is written there. Mr. Kang [Jung-hoon] writes poetry that corresponds to the feeling of han. The people on the island suffered a great deal during the political purges. A lot of them disappeared. It’s tragic. And I also love the beauty of the island. It’s a wonderful place, with its camellias, its rocks, its landscapes reminiscent of Ireland. Despite the tragedies of the past, people have maintained a real joie de vivre. I find all that fascinating. But I haven’t really felt a desire to write about it, except maybe that novella about the haenyeo. In that novella, “Tempête (Storm),” I gave so few clues about the setting that Japanese people have said to me: “You have written a very Japanese text.” I found that very amusing.

Choi: Writers often describe, with good reason, the agony of writing, the anxiety of the white page. I imagine there must also be pleasure in writing.

Le Clézio: Agony for me is when the outside world and real life prevent me from writing. When something disrupts my work, like paperwork that needs to be done or a leak in the roof that I need to have repaired . . . All that is such a bother. That’s why I like the idea of a monk’s cell. It’s a completely unrealistic wish, because I have a family and I’m not going to force them to live between four white walls. Agony for me is anything that eats into my writing. The white page doesn’t cause me any agony. On the contrary, it calls out to me, it invites me to write. But I always choose to use paper. It’s not very environmentally friendly. I need paper made mainly from cotton, not straw paper or recycled paper. That’s because I write on both sides with ink. The ink must not go through the paper. And I have to choose my ink carefully. I don’t write with a ballpoint. And I’m afraid I definitely don’t use a word processor.

Choi: But it also requires a great deal of energy and passion . . .

Le Clézio: Yes. I think it’s in my genes. I’m an energetic person. Actually, writing is a way for me to use up energy. I don’t get excited about anything else, like horse racing or sporting feats. But writing excites me. It’s a way of using up energy—and it does a good job of it too. It wears me out physically. So I’m happy when I’m worn out. It’s a kind of addiction. 


by Choi Mikyung
Associate Professor
Ewha Graduate School of Translation & Interpretation
Translator and Interpreter