What three things do Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, Elfriede Jelinek, and Claude Simon have in common?
1) There are all three Nobel Laureates, having won the award for Literature in 2008, 2004, and 1985, respectively.
2) If you are like me, you had never heard of them until they won the Nobel.
3) Again, if you are like me, after each won you dutifully glanced at one or two of their novels and thought, "There is no way in hell I would ever make it through one of these things."
The international obscurity of the recipient of the top international literary award not always but often often seems to be one criteria used by the selection committee. But occasionally it can go the other way. When William Golding won in 1983 I wondered, "Why did the author of the international bestseller Lord of the Flies and a handful of other novels nobody reads merit a Nobel Prize?
Like most of my literary prejudices, this one was based on my experience working with secondhand books. No matter how many copies of Lord of the Flies might pile up, twice a year it was assigned in school and you sold out. (Fourteen-year-old boys across America began chanting, "Kill the pig. Drink his blood.") In that same William Golding section were a few pitiful copies of novels with unpromising and strangely similar titles like The Spire and The Pyramid. They never sold. Look at some statistics on Good Reads, and this still seems to be the case. LOTF is on 276,585 lists. Other William Golding novels are on as few as six readers' lists, and the only title to reach an even 300 is The Inheritors.
I was that 300th reader of The Inheritors. It made David Pringle's list for the year 1955. The secondhand copy I picked up was a trade paperback with a cover illustration of a crudely carved human figure. On the back were three positive reviews, one by George Plimpton; a photograph of the smiling, avuncular author; and, of course, the line "A novel by the author of Lord of the Flies." What was missing, anywhere on the book, was any indication of its subject matter. Possibly Mr. Golding was then at such a height of his fame that no plot teaser was deemed necessary. Or it could be that the publishers wisely did not want to discourage the reader with the news that they were buying a novel where all the main characters were Neanderthals.
I'm glad I didn't write this blog posting immediately after I finished The Inheritors. At that time I was vague on a few of the plot points, and I had not been all that wrapped up in the adventures of Lok, Ha, Nil, Liku, Fa, the old woman, and the little one. But the book has grown on me, largely because I realize that it succeeds at not being ridiculous. This is not some prequel to Clan of the Cave Bear. It's a 200 page, slice-of-life novel covering a few days in the life of a species soon to become extinct.
This group has a rudimentary language that still requires extensive miming to carry its meaning. They preserve a fire but do not know how to kindle one. For meat, they chase the hyenas away from animals freshly killed by larger predators. Other than that its grubs and shoots, like on Survivor Man.
Then along come the homo sapiens, with their fancy canoes and complete sentences, and it's all over. They, which is to say, we, have no compunction about killing these forest devils, although their young ones make cute pets. Our forefathers wreak their casual havoc and then go sailing across the lake to better hunting grounds. End of story. End of species. Beginning of life as we know it.
I'm still not sure about that Nobel Prize, but I am 99% sure that I enjoyed The Inheritors more than I would anything by whoever Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio is.