The Prix Goncourt: On Bourgeois Literature and the Drawbacks of Awards

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Last year’s Prix Goncourt — France’s most prestigious literary award — went to Moroccan writer Leila Slimani for her Chanson Douce. Why this novel? What work does this prize do? From an essay that originally appeared in Arabic on Al Modon:

By Ayoub El Mouzaïne

Translated by Dana Dawud

the prix goncourt: on bourgeois literature and the drawbacks of awards


Crédits photo : François Mori

When asked in an interview about his opinion on the pleasure of text, the French philosopher Roland Barthes candidly expressed his belief that there existed both a rightist and a leftist literature. As in modern political traditions, the division depends on the text’s proximity to the Erotic, in content and approach. According to this distinction, a leftist literature would offer committed texts, dissenting to, and void of, distraction or excess; since these texts are written for the sake of educating the people and inciting them for revolutionary means. On the other hand, the literary production of a right-leaning kind, according to Barthes, would be erotically charged in content and form, distancing itself as far as possible from commitment and struggle in its dialectical sense.

In the history of French literary criticism, it is said that bourgeois literature played both the role of educating and entertaining, raising awareness and offering solace. But there is a bourgeois face of literature that exists on the margins of the text, a face that closed the book and opened venues for authors to build their fame and glory by exploiting family ties, financial privilege, and the media. This distinction opens up a series of questions: Why do writers write? What is the purpose of publishing? What is the value of literature? And if it does have value, what is at stake for awards?

In 2015, the novelist Mathias Enard was awarded the Prix Goncourt, one of France’s oldest and most prestigious literary accolades, for his novel Boussole (Compass).Using a composite language and different levels of narration, Mathias worked his way through an orientalist purview, moving along its mental and cultural delimitations. His protagonist is a man suffering from insomnia. Unable to sleep any longer than an hour at a time, he narrates his memories, travel tales, and his fantasies, creating for pleasure its own labyrinths of knowledge and pleasure. Enard was aiming for a “comprehensive work” that would convey his own relationship to the East and reflect his views of civilization, politics, and art. And perhaps he succeeded, without being consumed by the coronation.

A year later, in early November 2016, a woman in her early thirties appeared on one of the terraces of building number 199, on Boulevard Saint-Germain, in the 7th arrondissement‎. She was seen smiling, holding two copies of a book in her hands. Were they the Old and New Testament? What did this kind woman want? Did she feel lonely and decide to ask the passersby to come up to her home for a cup of green tea? And why was she standing like that on the terrace, as if she was the Pope?

A poisoned award

One could hardly remember a single name from the numerous receivers of the Goncourt; they all had been forgotten, and there isn’t a place made for them amidst the Pantheon of great intellectuals in the Latin Quarter cemetery. Although an exception has been made for the literary famous among them, such as Proust, Malraux, and Duras, we remember them through their works and not because of the award. For literary awards don’t necessarily create authors, and neither do they grant literary works immunity to face the profundity of language and the atrocious work of time. In 1932, the members of the academy voted for the award to be given to Guy Mazeline for his novel Les Loups (The Wolves) while Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s infamous novel Journey to the End of the Night has been eliminated from the competition. What do we know of Mazeline other than the fact that he was friends with the jury at that time? The French writer Jules Renard writes mocking the establishment supervising the award: “The Goncourt Academy seems ill to me, as if it’s an infirmary for old friends. The world of literature would not give it much interest in the future.”

Ever since its establishment, the ability to grant the award has been exclusively the business of a few well-known publishing houses. A journalist has even used “Galligrasseuil” to sarcastically describe the award, this invented term being composed of the names of three prominent publishing houses: Gallimard, Grasset, and “Editions du Seuil.” The aims of the award have also been reduced to settling accounts between French writers, and as a way for colleagues and friends to show their support for each other, or as a means to honor the “loyal” descendants of deserted colonies, for the award has been given to writers such as Amin Maalouf, Tahar Ben Jelloun, and most recently to Leila Slimani. Born in 1981 in Rabat, Slimani is that woman on the terrace.

Chanson Douce (Soft Song, 2016) is Slimani’s second novel, and the one that won her the award. Many reviews claim the title of the novel is deceptive, giving an impression of gentleness and domesticity while the novel itself is brutal. The novel starts with a stern opening line: “The infant died, it didn’t take more than a few seconds.” But the novel in its entirety is a domesticated variation of narrative, and truly is deceptive in its naivety but not in its technique, reminding us of Henry Salvador’s famous song by the same name “Une Chanson Douce,” and the lullabies grandmothers use to sing their infants to sleep! Her work, with its focus on the family, is a favorite theme among Francophones, especially Tahar Ben Jelloun, the young novelist’s godfather, if he’s considered to be the “commercial model.”

With a flat language, tedious adorned words follow each other like nails being manicured with care in a Parisian parlor—superficial words lacking in intensity compose her second novel. And, as in her first work In the Garden of the Ogre (2014), Slimani does not depend on style, since the pleasure of the text with her stems from social clichés, an ideological confusion, and an identity-sadism. The author claims in press statements that she has shed folklore and that her writing is free of stereotypes, that she has reconciled with her native/mother country. She goes on to present herself as a “universal” writer. She holds to her image as a bold Muslim writer whose main concern is “building characters.”

Nonetheless, in the same novel, she doesn’t hesitate to spill out all kinds of obsolete reactionary discourses on Arabs, Muslims, and North Africans, including the enslavement of the babysitter for her North African roots and the ruminations of a Moroccan prostitute being saved from her misery by a white old French man. This is exactly the price to be paid for the award.

Francophone orphans

Publishing a work in French doesn’t always mean pledging an eternal unconditional allegiance to a Francophone ideological hegemony that dominates cultural identity and ethnicity as they struggle to gain independence from a colonial era that has yet to end. During the end of the Eighties, France officially shifted the discussion from what it calls “French Literature” to Francophone literature in an attempt to affirm and draw attention to the richness and variety of French dialects (African, American, etc.) It also saw this as a way to melt down the iceberg of discord that has separated intellectuals and writers who have gradually liberated themselves from the shackles of patriarchal language and cultural centrism.

Derrida, in a letter to Abdelkebir Khatibi, wrote: “But, as you can see, I do not belong to any of these distinctly specified groups. ‘My identity’ does not disclose any of these categories (France’s French, non-Moroccan Francophone, French-Moroccan).Where do I stand then? What categorization could be created? I assume that I exist here, maybe alone, the only one who could be Moroccan (not as a citizen), and a French citizen, being them both at the same time. Even better, being them both at birth.”

There are Moroccan Francophone authors, or authors of Moroccan descent, like al-Khatibi and Mohammad Laftah, who maintain their loyalty to the French language without having to give in to its authoritative icons, and continue to contemplate the issues underlying the duplicity of the tongue and the pleasures of language—contemplation that breeds confusion, creates joy, and instigates anxiety.

But when it comes to Leila Slimani and a whole other generation of writers, among them Fuadal-Orwy, Muhammad al-Nidali and others, they have chosen to align themselves from the outset on the “safe side” of things. Their literary path is familiar and formulaic: they start by publishing bohemian-bourgeois texts to join the ranks of Ben Jelloun. They then receive the La Mamounia Hotel Award in Marrakech as a first step to reach the terrace of the Goncourt. And finally, they end up being used as cards in the hands of the media of an untenable empire. They are progressive in their “criticism” of tradition, making sure to please France, their loving mother, the “other” who praises them while secretly talking behind their backs. They swing back and forth like a pendulum, between the right and the left, depending on the swaying of the voices and the oscillation of interests at the doors of the Elysee Palace.

The Prix Goncourt, as much as it deals with French literature in a serious and selective manner—at least in the case of Enard’s novel Compass—remains a political ovation par excellence. As in the case of foreign literature that is written in French, it tacitly exposes the binary on which the academy bases its evaluation of a literary text, and reveals its political bias on issues of difference, identity, and creativity.

“We,” the orphans of al-Khatibi, love language and are on its side, while remaining against its politics. And we don’t hate ourselves, as much as the Francophonic orphans insist on flagellating genealogy and the alphabet. For after all, they surely know the value of literature in the stock exchange of awards.

Ayoub Mouzaine (@AMouzaine) is a writer and translator based in Casablanca, Morocco.

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