Officially, the prize is just a €10 cheque, but the real reward is runaway sales and translation into dozens of languages. The 2021 winner has so far sold 370,000 copies and translation rights for 40 languages. The 2020 laureate topped an extraordinary one million sales.
We are talking about France’s answer to the Booker Prize, Le Prix Goncourt, which has been around since 1903 and was in the past won by some of the greats of French and world literature such as Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras.
Just after lunch on Thursday, the 10 judges named author Brigitte Giraud as only the 13th female writer in 120 years to win France’s most prestigious literary prize.
Her novel, Vivre vite (Living Fast), is described by Didier Decoin, the chairman of the selection jury, as a universal story about a loved one who dies in an accident, leaving the bereaved pondering “Why and what if?” in an exploration of the role of chance in human life.
This year’s award has passed without any controversy – so far. But in the recent past, judging has often been a hotbed of intrigue and scandal, and now the organisers are striving for more integrity and transparency.
The prize has long been attacked as an “in-club”, with editors from major publishing houses sitting on the jury, giving fuel to past allegations of conflicts of interest. There was scandal last autumn when it emerged a judge voted for a book written by her life partner.
However, last year’s winner is a Senegalese writer, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, who was a fierce public critic of the French literary establishment. That choice was advanced as evidence of real reforms and promotion of writers from former colonies where French is still spoken.
The announcement came at the chic Paris restaurant Drouant – just down the road from the splendid French National Library – which has been the traditional venue for the unveiling since 1914.
The winner was picked from a shortlist of four books. Many observers had tipped a timely book that is a fictional account of life in the inner circle of Russian president Vladimir Putin, called Le Mage du Kremlin, (Wizard of the Kremlin). The book, by Italian-Swiss writer Giuliano da Empoli, was published just as Putin’s troops moved in to Ukraine.
One of the three female jurors, Paule Constant, told reporters it had come down to a race involving this pair. After 14 rounds of voting, both books were rated equal and the jury chairman, Didier deCoin, used his casting vote to break the deadlock in favour of Giraud.
The newspaper, Le Parisien, noted acerbically yesterday that Le Mage du Kremlin had just last week won the big novel prize from the rival Academie Francaise. The paper noted that only twice in recent decades had a writer won both prizes for a book.
“The two academies, between which there is little love lost, stick to the uniqueness of their choice,” the Le Parisien journalist deftly wrote.
Other observers noted further evidence of the winds of literary change around the Goncourt Prize – two of the other authors on the shortlist were described as “thirty-somethings” in age.
It was also noted that the celebrated literary journalist, Francois Busnel, who for 14 years presented a popular book show on television called La Grande Librairie, had long argued in favour of younger authors. He said promoting younger writers was part of a duty to promote literature.
Giraud, whose work is based on the death of her lover in a motorcycle crash, was gracious. She said her book was “intimate”, but believed the judges saw it resonated with the bulk of people. It had extra personal resonance for me as it is set in Lyon, my adopted home town a long time ago.
As to the €10 prize cheque, we learn it is more often framed and kept than cashed.