At a round table in Mauritius on June 19, 2013, J.-M.G. Le Clézio declared: “Dictionaries and encyclopedias are marvelous tools for shaping minds.” This interest in dictionaries, demonstrated in the paratext, goes back to his childhood and in particular, to the discovery in his grandmother’s library of this rare item: the Dictionary of Conversation. The author confided in Gérard de Cortanze: “I owe it the strongest emotions of my childhood. This daunting work, written in large part in an outdated French, appeared to me as if it were such stuff as dreams are made on. And what extraordinary dreams! It was a world in a book” (2000, 34). Le Clézio’s fictional work bears the trace of these joys of childhood reading: the narrator of “Fascination” recalls his pleasure in “climbing his grandmother’s staircase and ensconcing himself in an armchair to read dictionaries while gazing at the light of the sun” (P, 119), and it is in Flammarion’s Popular Astronomy that Daniel Sillitoe discovers the “imaginary land” of Ourania.
Dictionaries and encyclopedias open wide the doors to the world, to diversity, to knowledge without borders, to this child in enforced confinement within the house at Roquebillières because of the war, and to the adolescent stifled by the narrow confines of the city of Nice. They are at the source of this cultural and lexical erudition whose scope and diversity Jean Onimus brings out: “In order to read Le Clézio well, one needs an atlas, an encyclopedia of the plants of the world, good books on the Mascarene Islands, on Africa and Morocco in particular, and Mexico” (1993, 172). And yet Le Clézio’s erudition is far from any pedantry since it stirs the imagination, nurtures dreams, and participates intensively in creative activity.
Le Clézio is distinguished by this capacity to use the magical power of words to find an opening beyond what limits us, beyond the borders, beyond even the real : "There is so much hidden power in names. They swell and vibrate like bubbles. They can carry us, all at once, to the hinterlands of Siberia, the middle of the Indian Ocean or Calcutta. People are unaware of all that names contain" (VAC, 200). The Dictionary responds to this sensual taste for the sonority of words, perceptible in the lists that are sprinkled throughout the first books: the enumeration, in War, of new textiles derived from the chemical industry with their names "Greek Shepherd[s]"»(Barthes), a comical registry of all sorts of collectors in Terra Amata, an inventory of plants under their latin names in La Quarantine [Quarantine], the constellations of star names in The Prospector and Ourania ...
Freed from the limits and constraints imposed by the syntax and the demanding nature of the Signified, the words in their neutral state, in a “pure state", the words of the dictionary stand in all their wealth and their destitution. Rich with their heritage that includes their etymology, the history of the language, and their graphic evolution, they also look to future richness: they will be employed in new ways, literally and figuratively, there will be derivations and connotations to each reading. Poor from their lack of incarnation, they represent the very possibility of literature: "It is when they are so close to death that words are deeply in life. They are the beginning," writes J.-M.G. Clézio in L’Extase matérielle [Material Ecstasy] (40).
A Dictionary dedicated to Le Clézio’s work seems to be an effort in perfect congruence with the writer’s own creative approach. As long as we avoid freezing a work while it is still evolving, and we don’t impoverish the polysemy through excessive rationalism, such a work can respond to three needs.
The objective is to take stock of knowledge about a rich literary production of some fifty books - novels, short stories, essays, not to mention articles and prefaces - which has given rise to a large body of research from around the world, to contribute to the elaboration of the lexicon that Jean Onimus wished for, and to provide information on certain realia that inspire the author who is always researching, exploring archives.
We hope that this dictionary will accompany Le Clézio’s readers in their walk through the “woods of his work" (Umberto Eco). Each entrance is thought of as "a beginning", an invitation to walk the vast paths drawn by specifically Leclézian places, works and major themes. Or less marked trails, discovering the "hidden strength" of rare or unusual words, enigmatic names, which testify to the universal curiosity of J.-M.G. Le Clézio, hailed by the Nobel Prize Jury, and the concrete and precocious inscription of interculturality in his writings.
Marina Salles (october 2013)
Translation: Mary Vogl
1 This round table on the theme of travel, in the presence of J.-M.G. The Clézio, Issa Asgarally and Martha Van Der Drift, was held in the gardens of the Hotel La Pirogue in Flic en Flac, Mauritius.