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Korea Blog: French Nobel Laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio’s New Novel of Korea, and the Love of Korea That Inspired It

Like any country afflicted by an inferiority complex, South Korea has shown an avid interest in winning Nobel Prizes, to the point of scrutinizing and attempting to adapt for itself the customs of the nations (and even ethnicities and religions) that have managed to produce large numbers of Nobel laureates. But apart from the 2000 Peace Prize, awarded to pro-democracy activist and then-president Kim Dae-jung, the dream remains elusive. A few Korean or Korean-born scientists have come up as potential future winners, but the hopes of recent years have been repeatedly pinned on the poet Ko Un, who, at the age of 84, continues — to the great frustration of Korean culture’s global promoters — not to win the Literature Prize.

Nevertheless, Korea does have a Nobel-winning champion in French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, whose receipt of the Literature prize in 2008 occasioned a scramble to make his work available in the non-Francophone world. Even before being granted the sacred object, however, he’d already become something of a public figure in Korea, having arrived here the year before to teach French language and literature at the prestigious Ewha Womans University. “Le Clézio was a Nobel literature prize candidates in 2007, and reporters camped outside his house in Seoul on Oct. 11, the day the winner was announced,” writes Esther Lee in an early-2008 piece in the Joongang Daily. “Asked if he knew reporters were waiting for him, he laughed. ‘I was out that day, riding the subway,’ he said. The award went to Doris Lessing.”

The article also points out Le Clézio’s enthusiasm for Korean literature, “which he describes as dynamic and multicolored.” The Nobel’s arrival in 2008 provided him with an enlarged platform to promote it, especially in his homeland: “Korean literature is written in a hard language, without affectation, pity for oneself or satisfaction,” he wrote in a Le Figaro, “but is always imaginative and allusive with self-deprecating humor that characterizes the Korean people.” A decade on, he has, in a sense, contributed a work of his own to the body of Korean literature with his new book Bitna: Under the Sky of Seoul, a short novel of connected tales set in the Korean capital.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.