France's Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio won the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday for works characterized by “poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy” and focused on the environment, especially the desert.
Le Clezio, 68, is the first French writer to win the prestigious award since Chinese-born Frenchman Gao Xingjian was honored in 2000.
The decision was in line with the Swedish Academy's recent picks of European authors and followed days of vitriolic debate about whether the jury was anti-American.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed Le Clezio's win as a sign of France's worldwide cultural influence.
Le Clezio made his breakthrough as a novelist with “Desert” in 1980. The academy said the work “contains magnificent images of a lost culture in the North African desert contrasted with a depiction of Europe seen through the eyes of unwanted immigrants.”
That novel, which also won Le Clezio a prize from the French Academy, is considered a masterpiece. It describes the ordeal of Lalla, a woman from the Tuareg nomadic tribe of the Sahara Desert, as she adapts to civilization imposed by colonial France.
The Swedish Academy said Le Clezio from early on “stood out as an ecologically engaged author, an orientation that is accentuated with the novels ‘Terra Amata,' ‘The Book of Flights,' ‘War' and ‘The Giants.'”
Speaking to reporters in Paris, Le Clezio said he was very honored and described feeling waves of emotion on hearing the news.
“(I felt) some kind of incredulity, and then some kind of awe, and then some kind of joy and mirth,” he said.
Asked if he deserved the prize, he replied “Why not?”
Since Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe won the award in 1994, the selections have had a distinctively European flavor. Since then, 12 Europeans have won the prize.
The last U.S. writer to win the prize was Toni Morrison in 1993.
Last week, Academy Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl told The Associated Press that the United States is too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world. The comments ignited a fierce reaction across the Atlantic, where the head of the U.S. National Book Foundation offered to send Engdahl a reading list.