France kicks off two-week literary prize season

30th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

France's annual book prize season was launched yesterday, a two-week whirl of media buzz and wining-and-dining for the literary elite of the country that first came up with the idea of a best novel.

PARIS - The first of the half-dozen prizes religiously awaited each year by publishers looking for a sales boost, is a Grand Prix awarded by the Academie Francaise, the almost four-century-old watchdog of the French language.

The most prestigious however will be Monday's Goncourt, a prize dating back to 1903 which comes with a pittance of only 10 euros but is a literary feather in the cap for France's distinguished company of authors and publishing houses.

Last year it went to Afghan writer and refugee Atiq Rahimi's "The Patience Stone", and in 2006 to Jonathan Littell, an American who writes in French, for "The Kindly Ones", an epic tale of wartime Europe seen through the eyes of an unrepentant Nazi officer.

This year's hot tip to take home the Goncourt is French-Senegalese writer Marie NDiaye for a three-part stream of consciousness tale weaving the stories of three women whose lives straddle Africa and its former colonial rulers.

If her "Trois Femmes Puissantes" (Three Powerful Women) wins, the 42-year-old will be the first Goncourt woman laureate of the last decade.

In these cost-cutting times, the publishing business like most industries is cautious, and writers favoured for this year's awards are all seasoned authors with prizes and best-sellers already under their belts.

NDiaye for one has already won the Femina, among other awards to be announced early November.

In food-loving France, the results of the Goncourt and Renaudot prizes will be thrashed out over lunch at the Drouant restaurant by a panel of literary types and announced in the establishment's media-packed lobby.

Though the Goncourt was the world's first such book prize and continues to curry favour at home, it is probably one of the globe's tiniest in cash terms.

Followed up by Columbia University's Pulitzers in 1917, which carry a prize of 5,000 dollars (3,300 euros), the French prize is dwarfed by Spain's Planeta, the globe's biggest award that was created in 1952 worth 601,000 euros.

But it lacks the prestige of Spain's other book award, the Cervantes, viewed as the Spanish language's "Nobel" award and worth 125,000 euros. Cervantes laureates include Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Luis Borges.;

Most sought after on the English front is undoubtedly the Man Booker Prize, created in 1969 and worth 50,000 pounds (80,000 dollars, 54,000 euros).

This year's winner was Britain's Hilary Mantel for "Wolf Hall," a historical novel about King Henry VIII's advisor Thomas Cromwell.

The 2008 winner was India's Aravind Adiga for his debut novel "The White Tiger", which has sold more than half a million copies and been translated into 30 languages.

Dominique Chabrol/AFP/Expatica

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