'Sunday writer' wins France's top literary prize with his first book

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The Independent Culture

France's leading literary prize, Le Goncourt, was awarded yesterday to a first-time author who describes himself as just a "Sunday writer".

Alexis Jenni, a biology teacher, beat multi-award winning authors and saw his novel The French Art Of War named the judges' favourite at the Goncourt Academy.

The book, exploring the legacy of French colonial wars in Algeria and Indochina, has been described as an "inspired song, bathed in blood and fighting". Previously unknown in literary circles, Mr Jenni, 48, writes and blogs for pleasure. He cites the contemporary debate about France's national identity as his inspiration for the 700-page work.

"I don't have any suggestion, any opinion [on the subject]," he said. "I want to encourage reflection."

Mr Jenni has been criticised by some for writing with grandiosity and excessive classicism. However, the head of the 10 judges, Edmonde Charles-Roux, spoke of a "rare, surprising book". His colleague, Régis Debray, stressed the importance of the "frustration over French imperial hegemony" the novel explores.

The Prix Goncourt is French literature's most coveted prize and has been awarded for more than a century. Previous winners include Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir.