A very French Ceremony

Winning the Prix du Meilleur livre Étranger

In the summer of 1995, my foreign rights agent called me and told me that I’d won a prestigious French Prize called the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger. “Never heard of it,” I scoffed. She sent me a list of previous winners. The first name I caught was Elias Canetti. The Canetti? Winner of the Nobel Prize? Surely not. It had to be some unknown Elias Canetti of New Jersey or Dubuque.

A glance down the rest of the list showed me how wrong I was. Clearly the Elias Canetti was the writer who’d won this prize in 1949 — more than 30 years before he won his Nobel — for the simple reason that the rest of the list was a staggering line-up of the great in 20th Century literature: Kazansakis for Zorba in 1954, Gunter Grass for The Tin Drum in 1962, Tolkein for Lord of the Rings in 1972, W. H. Auden in 1976, Nabokov in 1985. Along the way come e e cummings, Robert Penn Warren, Kathleen Raine, Heinrich Boll, Updike, Singer, Solzhenitsyn and many more. To see the list, click here [Link to Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger page]

I remember being told later — whether it’s true or not I can’t be sure — that the prize had been set up by a group of young French publishers at the end of World War II and that these same men, who must be ancient by now, have met in the same restaurant every year on the same day of the same month to decide the winner among themselves. Sometimes there’s a prize for fiction and another for non-fiction. Sometimes, when they don’t find a book worthy in one category, they award it only in the other.

In my year, 1995, they awarded only the novel prize — Theory of War in the French is called L’Enfant Loué — which made the honour doubly great.

I spoke a little French at the time, but I was too afraid of making a mistake to be any good at it. Even so, I’d decided I’d accept this honour in the language of the people who were awarding it. I prepared a speech. Very short. A French-speaking friend corrected it. I memorized it. I said it over and over on the flight to Paris. Why is it that the harder you try to get something right, the surer you are that you’re going to mess it up?

My French publisher, Ivan Nabokov, nephew of Vladimir, took me to the ceremony. (I fretted my speech in the taxi.) The ceremony wasn’t supposed to be a big affair; the selection committee — the publishers who’d set up the prize — were to gather along with assorted other people in publishing and a journalist or two to give a few speeches, award the prize, listen to me accept it and drink a glass of champagne.

Paris was one huge traffic jam that afternoon. We started early, got caught again and again and arrived late only to find that nobody else had managed to get there at all. A poster announcing my prize stood on a table. There were perhaps 20 empty seats in front of it. We waited. We made small talk. (I went on fretting my speech.) Ten minutes passed. Nobody arrived. Twenty minutes. Nobody. A half an hour. The seats were still empty.

When not a single other person showed up after an hour, Ivan shrugged with very Gallic resignation and said we might as well go and have some dinner.

“I don’t have to make a speech?” I said.

He looked abruptly concerned. “You could make it to me.”

I shook my head, hardly able to believe my luck. “Can I have the poster instead?”

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Prix du Meilleur livre Étranger