Last year the Prix Goncourt was awarded to a superstar author, Michel Houellebecq, for his fifth novel, "La Carte et le Territoire". He had been passed over for France’s top literary prize before, and it was widely thought that it was his due. This year, by contrast, the French are rather delighted that the prize, announced on November 2nd, has been awarded to a 48-year-old first-time novelist, Alexis Jenni, for "L’Art français de la Guerre". A self-described “Sunday author”, Mr Jenni is a high-school biology teacher from Lyon who does most of his writing in local cafés.
The 630-page novel is part adventure, part reflection on the role war has played in shaping French national identity. The story, told by a war veteran to the anonymous narrator, explores the way France’s various colonial and post-colonial military campaigns, from Indo-China and Algeria to the first Gulf war, have battered the country’s sense of itself. This is not an easy book, as these are uncomfortable issues for the French. Bernard Pivot, a French critic and member of the Goncourt jury, called the novel “sublime”. Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Moroccon author well read in France and a member of the jury, described it as “a beautiful literary work that touches the history of France”.
Mr Jenni, whose name rhymes in French with the word genius (génie), told Le Monde that he had written two other unpublished manuscripts. After working on "L’Art Français de la Guerre", he posted it off to just one publisher, Gallimard, which accepted it earlier this year for publication—just in time for the literary-prize season.