Jonathan Littell ’89 joined the ranks of Marcel Proust, André Malraux and Simone de Beauvoir on Monday when he won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary honor.
Littell won the prize for his novel “Les Bienveillantes,” a 903-page fictional memoir of a former Nazi SS officer who reinvented himself as a lace manufacturer in northern France after avoiding prosecution after the war. Although several non-French writers have claimed the Goncourt in recent years, this is the first time an American has won the prize.
Echoing the sentiments of book critics across Europe, members of the Yale community said they were surprised Littell had won the annual award.
“In this time of less than full support for America in France, it’s really quite unusual for an American to win this kind of award,” French professor Howard Bloch said. “It’s the most prestigious literary award given in France. There’s no doubt about it.”
Bloch said “Les Bienveillantes” — which translates to “The Kindly Ones” — was a fairly controversial selection for the prize. Readers say the novel is not so much a confession of an ex-Nazi as a matter-of-fact account of the narrator’s brutal past. The protagonist’s life includes murder, incest and homosexual sadomasochism.
Jonathan Burnham, the senior vice president and publisher of HarperCollins — which recently purchased the U.S. distribution rights to “Les Bienveillantes” — acknowledged that Littell’s book was provocative.
“It’s not exactly that it’s breaking a taboo, but it’s certainly crossing a boundary that has never been crossed before,” Burnham said.
Burnham said competition for the rights to the book was fierce. Littell’s novel has sold over 250,000 copies in France alone, and it received raves at the Frankfurt book fair, a major showcase for the publishing industry.
“The atmosphere of the Frankfurt book fair is like a hothouse where everyone talks and whips each other into a frenzy,” Burnham said. “And this was the book everyone was talking about.”
Although the book will not be translated and released in English until 2008, “Les Bienveillantes” is already quite popular among the American Francophone community. Emanuel Molho, whose Manhattan bookstore Librairie de France bills itself as the only French bookseller in the United States, said he is constantly placing orders to avoid selling out of the novel.
In spite of his newfound fame, Littell has tried to avoid the spotlight. He has refused television appearances to promote his book, and he declined his invitation to the Goncourt award ceremony.
Yale French Professor Ora Avni GRD ’80, who met Littell after he graduated, said he had always been a quiet person.
“He was a very nice, interesting person,” she said. “But I wasn’t aware that he was writing at the time.”
In spite of the author’s low profile, Littell’s U.S. publishers believe “Les Bienveillantes” will be a success when it is released in English. Burnham said he expects the book to be extremely popular.
“I would describe it as a masterpiece,” Burnham said. “It’s a very brave novel which takes on a big slice of history and re-imagines it in a tremendous new way.