Do literature and history secretly march in step? Yesterday, believers in some deep organic link between the arts and the society surrounding them could have been forgiven for thinking so. In the week that a once-almighty model of "Anglo-Saxon" financial power came crashing to the ground, the Swedish Academy gave the Nobel Prize in Literature to a cosmopolitan French-language writer with a deep "green" sensibility, Third World affiliations and a lifelong bias to the marginal and poor.
Made last week, the choice of Jean-Marie Le Clézio has merit on its own terms – as well as somehow looking like the topical reflection of a hunger for a world that spreads its benefits beyond a now-disgraced elite. True, the Academy's citation did praise the Nice-born author, who comes from a Breton family long settled on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, as the "explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilisation".
To a background music of crumbling banks and sinking consumer economies, that sounds like an endorsement of a prolific body of work that lines up with the wretched of the earth against the arrogance of the exploiting West. Le Clézio's writing does tilt in that direction, but its lyrical and mystical power – in novels such as Desert, The Gold Prospector and Onitsha – lifts it far beyond polemic.
Although he began as a Camus-style existentialist with his 1963 novel The Interrogation, his far-sighted concerns with ecology, migration and global justice had come to the fore by around 1970, in books such as Terra Amata and The Book of Flights. Above all, Le Clézio is a traveller in body and spirit: a citizen of the world who identifies his homeland as the French language rather than French society.
The work of his that I know (a small fraction of the copious whole) reminds me of figures such as Michael Ondaatje, Ben Okri or even, sometimes, Bruce Chatwin: haunted landscapes, harsh, hidden lives in beautiful but accursed places, perilous voyages across hallucinatory scenes of miracle and terror. He names his own favourite novelists as Stevenson and Joyce: despite their disparities, both authors who could always see the dangerous wonders of the world through a child's unblinking eye.
Le Clézio also proves that "global" authors with a world-wide literary canvas, and a foot in several camps, don't only write in English. His award fits in neatly with the pattern that over the past decade or so has seen the Nobel go to the Anglophone border-crossers Derek Walcott (St Lucia), V S Naipaul (Trinidad) and Doris Lessing (Rhodesia, but born in Iran). These giants from the far corners of a dominant culture have conquered the metropolitan centres, and held up a mirror to the First World even as they excavate the majesty or misery of the Third.
Le Clézio's father lived in England and worked as doctor in Nigeria. The writer himself has spent years in Mexico and Panama: the lore and life of pre-Columbian America inspires many of his books. And, if we recall that his father had UK nationality, that Le Clézio studied in Bristol, and that Mauritius belongs to the Commonwealth as well as La Francophonie – we could almost acclaim this year's laureate as partly "Anglo-Saxon" himself. Many different places and people can celebrate this choice: which is, surely, just as Le Clézio would wish.Reuse content