Like many pubescent boys of a certain temperament, I was fascinated with the existentialists, and I did the whole moody teen thing of reading Sartre and Camus and slouching against walls staring off into space, wishing the neighborhood liquor store carried Gauloises so I could shoplift a pack.
Within a couple of years, I learned more about Sartre, and he failed my sniff tests rather badly. Not only was he a fervent Communist—which to me is at least as silly as being, say, a fervent Southern Baptist—but he had taken mescaline and handled it rather poorly.
Now I don’t think that strong psychedelics are for everybody; but I do believe they are something, as Jack Aubrey would put it, amazingly philosophical, and I consequently expect any philosopher to be able to do something intelligent with their experience of these substances. Jean-Paul’s response was to say that he was “fighting with a devil-fish,” and for a few years thereafter he was plagued by the fear he was being pursued by a lobster. (A lobster. I am not making this up.) Clearly a lightweight.
Camus stands the test of time for me. His position that the only really important philosophical question is that of suicide goes to the heart of the matter; if you decide to stay alive, you have taken a stance with respect to the universe, and the fact you have elected to keep on breathing tells us a lot more than all the academic hairsplitting that goes on in philosophy texts.
My interest in the existentialists, though, led me to read others who were considered to be in the same literary camp, and the one who made the deepest impression on me, all those years ago, was JMG Le Clezio. (When I did my interview with Macmillan and was asked about the writers who’d most influenced me, Le Clezio was one of the nine I mentioned.)
I haven’t been avidly following his career, mind you. But his collection of short stories, Fever, stunned me. One story especially, The Day Beaumont Became Acquainted with His Pain. It’s a modest little tale about a fellow who gets a toothache. (In fact, until I checked, I would have sworn the title of the whole collection was The Toothache.) The story is absorbing, even though it really doesn’t go anywhere. There is no hook, no plot, no epiphany waiting at the end; just a mounting obsession with this niggling, annoying, ultimately consuming pain.
Now, I could say I was amazed at how such a little issue can both illuminate character and then segue into the point that in extremis we are all much alike; or argue the story shows how much the mind is governed by the body. But the real influence of Le Clezio one me was that I closed the book and said, “My God, you can write a story about a toothache? That would mean you can write a story about anything!”
Until Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, I’d read mostly for plot (what else was there?). The stories in Fever that made me realize the craft of writing was about detail, and that the right details could give anything the flavor of reality; that focus and magnification were some of the most important of a writer’s tools.
Not profound thoughts for grownups, perhaps; but a writer who can nudge a 14-year-old into such a realization has got some serious mojo.
So I was gratified to see he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, even if his influence on moody teens was not cited as one of his outstanding qualities.
Oddly, some American critics seem to view this particular award as a sort of swipe against America. “We” haven’t won for 12 years (as if literature is some sort of football game with a home team), and now they give it to some French guy with two girly first names…