On Tuesday the Prix Goncourt, the oldest and most prestigious prize in French literature, was awarded to Mathias Énard for his novel Boussole. This is the ninth published work by Énard, an Arabic and Persian scholar who was born in Niort in western France, and has been based in Barcelona since 2000.
Boussole is the account of Frantz Ritter, a Viennese musicologist, who spends an opium-fuelled night hazily contemplating his own unrequited love, and the long history of the relationship between the West and the Arab world, as he undertakes a mental journey from old Istanbul to contemporary Damascus and Aleppo. Boussole is described by Énard’s publisher, Actes Sud, as a ‘poetic eulogy to the long history of cultural exchanges between east and west’.
Énard’s first novel, La Perfection du tir, was published in 2003, a richly psychological first-person account of a sniper engaged in civil war in an unnamed country. It received the Prix des cinq continents de la francophonie in 2004. But it was Zone, which emerged in 2008, which brought Énard to international attention. Written in the form of a long monologue – a single sentence which extends for almost 500 pages – expressed by a French intelligence operative on a train between Milan and Rome, it develops as an epic interweaving of personal history with a history of warfare touching the Mediterranean, its focus encompassing from Yugoslavia to Palestine.
Zone won six awards, including the Prix Décembre in 2008 and the Prix du Livre Inter in 2009. It was followed by Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants in 2010, and Rue des voleurs in 2012, both of which achieved critical acclaim. Actes Sud, which has been Énard’s publisher throughout his literary career, now has three Prix Goncourt successes to its name: some way behind Gallimard, the leading publisher with thirty-six.
Mathias Énard received his award at the Drouant restaurant in Paris, after voting took place over a traditional lunch of lamb stew. To achieve such a lucrative prize – with the winner sure to enjoy soaring sales figures – he had to navigate three selection stages. The first of these established fifteen candidates, while the second narrowed the field to eight. A final shortlist of four novels was unveiled on 27 October, in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, a gesture made in response to the Bardo National Museum attack which killed twenty-two people in March.
Beyond Énard’s Boussole, the other shortlisted novels were Titus n’aimait pas Bérénice, written by Nathalie Azoulai, published by P.O.L.; Les Prépondérants, written by Hédi Kaddour, published by Gallimard; and Ce pays qui te ressemble, written by Tobie Nathan, published by Stock.
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The Prix Goncourt was established in 1903, after Edmond de Goncourt, in honour of his brother and collaborator Jules, bequeathed his entire estate towards the foundation of a new literary académie. Its initial focus was first-time novelists – Marcel Proust’s receipt of the prize in 1919 for In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, proved controversial as the author was then aged 48 – but today awards whichever French-language author the académie Goncourt deems to have written ‘the best and most imaginative prose work of the year’.
Past winners have included André Malraux, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Andreï Makine, Marie NDiaye, and Michel Houellebecq. The first woman to receive the Prix Goncourt was Elsa Triolet in 1944. Romain Gary is the only author to have won the award twice, in 1956 and for the second time in 1975, when he deceived the académie by virtue of the pseudonym ‘Émile Ajar’, his cousin’s son publicly portraying the impostor.
In contrast to the Man Booker Prize, whose judging panel changes each year, the winner of the Prix Goncourt is decided by ten-long standing academicians, known as ‘les Dix’. Membership is not limited to citizens of France, with any French-language author open for election. The current ten academicians are Bernard Pivot, Edmonde Charles-Roux, Didier Decoin, Paule Constant, Patrick Rambaud, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Régis Debray, Françoise Chandernagor, Philippe Claudel, and Pierre Assouline.
Today’s prize money of €10 has scarcely changed since 1903. In addition to the Prix Goncourt for a novel, the académie presents four other awards: the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, for a first novel; the Prix Goncourt de la Nouvelle, for a short story collection; the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie, for a body of poetry; and the Prix Goncourt de la Biographie, for a work of biography. This year Kamel Daoud won the prize for first novel, for The Meursault Investigation; while Patrice Franceschi’s collection Première personne du singulier won the prize for short story.
The Prix Goncourt remains the best known of France’s six biggest literary prizes, all of which are typically awarded in the late autumn. The Prix Femina was established in 1904 as a riposte to the all-male académie Goncourt, and is decided each year by an exclusively female jury. The Prix Renaudot is announced at the same ceremony as the Prix Goncourt, an occasionally more daring if less celebrated younger sibling. The others are the Grand Prix du Roman, the most senior award handed out by the Académie française; the Prix Médicis, for emerging talent; and the Prix Interallié, awarded for a novel written by a journalist.