“Why does society make such monsters? »

“Why does society make such monsters?  »

The verbal procedure, the first novel by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (1963), drew the secret cartography that will mark part of his work, inspired by the city of Nice, which is never named there. It is in a city of the Côte d’Azur crushed by the sun that his strange hero wanders, his interior chaos reflecting that of the place. The writer is doubly marked by the city where he was born: by its beauty as well as by the war. There he experienced the clandestine life and the violence, incomprehensible to the young child that he was.

Nice is the city of great emptiness: that of hunger and uncertainty, and that of the absence of the father, who remained in Africa. These themes echo situations in the novel Ritual of Hunger. Evoking the Liberation experienced in Nice, JMG Le Clézio writes: “This hunger is in me. I can not forget it. It sheds a sharp light that prevents me from forgetting my childhood. Without her, no doubt I would not have remembered that time. »

The first memory of the writer, told in The Child and the War, is that of the explosion of a bomb which shakes the district, rue Carnot, near the port of Nice, where his family is recluse in the small attic apartment of the grandmother. The child is seized by this strange feeling that the earth becomes liquid, that nothing is certain anymore, that everything can disappear » : I did not choose this moment. This is war for a child, he has chosen nothing. »

The house in the heights of Nice from Minutes, like the hinterland of Nice where the family went into exile in 1943, is an almost dreamlike refuge, a hoped-for haven far from the traumas of the city. A villa that a walker could almost find today, following the paths designated in the novel.

Turning around, he could check the presence of the blue sea, “studded here and there with white sails”. And he would see the city unfold, as the writer had described it: “The reflection of the sun swayed like a crystal chandelier, and the waves stayed put, like furrows. The sky was twice as big, and the land in places, especially around the line of mountains that barred the road to the sea horizon, was badly arranged; the colors were garish and the volumes often added to each other in an odd disregard for the most basic notions of balance and perspective. »

The cross : In your beautiful book The Child and the War (1), you talk about your childhood in Nice, where you were born on April 13, 1940, like the injustice of the current wars for children – Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese, and even child soldiers. “You can’t really be a child when you were born in a war», write yourself. Were they the ones you thought of in particular, at the time of theJuly 14, 2016 attack ?

JMG Le Clezio: This Nice of the war does not exist any more, because the wounds heal and the promoters do the rest. These are very distant memories for me, and absolutely physical. But what I believe is that for children today, the violence remains the same, that is to say that it is difficult (except for direct witnesses) to imagine a scene of war like the one that took place on the Promenade des Anglais.

I also believe that there can be no hierarchy in violence. The brutality, the absurdity, the hatred manifested in this attack are identical to what a child perceives when a bomb falls on his house. The question that remains unanswered, and yet one would need an answer to hope for peace, is to know why society produces such monsters, and why the explosion of violence cannot be controlled.

What is your relationship to this city today?

JMGLC Nice is still the city of my childhood, where I was born and where I grew up, I know it better than any other place in the world, every street, every neighborhood, every garden, every house. I know them, but as one knows an old face, because everything has changed a lot, especially among the inhabitants. When I was a child, the port area was frequented by sailors, fishermen and dockworkers, and now it’s a vacation spot, with a plethora of restaurants with terraces, tourists from cruises, or travelers in a hurry leaving for Corsica.

The old town was then inhabited for the most part by people from Nice, who spoke this language and worked in small businesses, selling poutine, anchoïade, or basket makers, chair menders, scissor sharpeners, haberdashers, jewelers, shoemakers, and now there are luxury stores, typical restaurants, postcard sellers. This is to say that I love Nice with a love that is at once disappointed, nostalgic and quite imaginary.

Your literary work draws inspiration from other founding places – Mexico, Mauritius, Africa, Brittany… How is this attachment to Nice special?

JMGLC: This love mixed with nostalgia, sometimes with bitterness, lights up every time I come to Nice thanks to the beauty of the place, the music of its history, its legends, its tenacity in maintaining its heritage.

You also recall bright memories, such as that of your first ice cream, facing the sea, near the Promenade des Anglais. Before the war, and before the 2016 attack, Nice was precisely this image of carelessness: the sun, the palm trees, the red roofs of the villas, the artists, the painting of Matisse… Is it this lightness that the attack has weakened?

JMGLC: Nice’s beauty heritage is very captivating, nothing can alter it. I’m not just talking about museums (although the Musée des Beaux-Arts des Collinettes contains the most beautiful specimens of Belle Époque art, in particular two sublime paintings by Marie Bashkirtseff), but about this magical light of the Mediterranean , of this city open throughout history to Greeks, Ligurians, and also to English, Russians and Americans.

From the spring of 1943, your family took refuge in the hinterland of Nice, in the Vésubie valley. You salute the remarkable generosity and solidarity of the inhabitants of this region: “We owe it, no doubt, to having survived their unflinching and unabashed heroism. » Vésubians who now welcome illegal migrants…

JMGLC: Nice experienced the best and the worst during the 1939-1945 war, resistance fighters like Canon Pontremoli (later parish priest of the Church of the Port) and traitors like the prefect who took part in the deportation of the Jews. This mixed history is still perceptible, you cannot live in Nice without thinking of the tortures practiced in the basements of the big hotels, of the courage of women like my mother who helped the resistance fighters and above all traveled for miles by bicycle to find something feed her children. The inhabitants of Saint-Martin-Vésubie, those of Roquebillière, were very courageous, their action helped to save lives. They remained as they were at that time, ready to help fugitives from across the border.

The story of your childhood in Nice also mentions churches, like “familiar faces”. Have you visited the Notre-Dame de l’Assomption basilica, where the knife attack that killed three people on October 29, 2020 took place?

JMGLC: No, because my parish was Notre-Dame du Port, but I share the horror of this attack which bears witness to the fragility and innocence of places of worship in a context of cowardly and cruel violence, in Nice as elsewhere around the world.

What do you hope for from the trial of the 2016 attack, which is being held at the special assize court in Paris?

JMGLC: All the victims of this heinous act have a right to speak, and we must listen to them and unite them in our hearts.


JMG Le Clézio, Nice and the world

April 13, 1940: Born in Nice, in a Breton family which had emigrated to Mauritius in the 18th century.

1947: Leaves for Nigeria with his mother to join his father – he will tell the story in L’Africain (2004).

1950s: Returns to Nice for his studies at Lycée Masséna. Then studied in Aix-en-Provence, London and Bristol.

1963: first novel, The verbal procedure (Renaudot prize).

1967: Cooperating in Thailand. Deported for denouncing sex tourism. Sent to Mexico. Publish Terra Amata, on the prehistoric site of Nice.

1970 to 1974: Shares the life of the Indians in Panama.


1983: Doctoral thesis in history on the Mexican region of Michoacan at the Institute of Mexican Studies in Perpignan. Teaches in Bangkok, Mexico City and Albuquerque…

1992:Wandering star.


2008: Nobel Prize in literature.

JMG Le Clézio has published more than 30 novels and a dozen essays (Gallimard, reissued in Folio).


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