Innovation and Tradition: The Prix Goncourt in 2017

This Monday, Eric Vuillard received the Prix Goncourt for The Order of the Day. On this occasion, our columnist explores the history and the significance of France’s highest literary honor and its close cousin, the Prix Renaudot.
© Olivier Dion

The Drouant restaurant near the Palais Garnier in Paris was founded in 1880. It is a discreet, distinguished place where people enjoy excellently prepared, traditional French cuisine in a reserved setting. For the most part, the guests do not talk, they murmur. Decorum, along with the observance of an unofficial dress code, are expected. Yet the staid atmosphere and decorous behavior take time off once a year when, in a private room in the restaurant, tempers can flair and voices may rise. This is normally the first Tuesday in November, a day on which for over one hundred years, a jury of ten people, mostly men, have assembled to choose the winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s oldest and most prestigious literary award.

The Goncourt was created through a bequest of Edmond de Goncourt, partly in memory of his deceased younger brother, Jules, and partly to provide the financial wherewithal for gifted young writers. The prize was first discerned in 1903. Unlike most literary awards, the jurors are lifetime members of the Goncourt Academy. In practice, this means most jurors are fairly elderly, and critics sometimes claim they are out of touch with the latest developments in French literature. However, this year’s award belies that accusation. Men are vastly more represented on the jury than women, and this has provoked an outcry from feminists who once listed all the gifted women writers who had never won the prize. That Simone de Beauvoir was the laureate in 1954 for The Mandarins is viewed in some quarters as a token gesture.

Goncourt jurors receive no financial recompense, but they are invited to a free, excellent lunch at Drouant once a month, an event which most of the year is simply an informal gathering of intelligent, perhaps slightly edgy, writers. However, as November approaches, the tension mounts. The award process involves three stages, three lunches. An initial list of about 15 novels is announced. The list is shortened by the second meal, then stripped down to just a few selections for the November gathering when the winner is announced.

The extended deliberations invariably create tensions, and on one occasion a novelist flat-out outsmarted the jury. In 1998, Paule Constant’s Trading Secrets narrowly bested Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, much to the disgust of some jurors who shared their displeasure in strong language with their victorious colleagues. The two novelists in question only enflamed the situation further through a public exchange of unpleasantries.

The Goncourt rules state explicitly that no author can win the prize twice, and that was indeed the truth until the wily Romain Gary won in 1956 for The Roots of Heaven. Considering this rule a suggestion rather than a prohibition, he invented a distant cousin, Emile Ajar, and under this pseudonym won the Goncourt in 1975 for The Life Before Us.

The choice of this year’s winner was an unexpected but pleasant surprise. Eric Vuillard has distinguished himself as an innovative artist who combines history and fiction, but he is not a writer of historical fiction who searches to hide the imagined elements behind historical facts. For him, fiction fills in the gaps between the historical records and what might be the often-unsavory behavior of the historical actors. In Sorrow of the Earth (2014), he describes Buffalo Bill as the fraud he generally was. But lest this seem an exercise in anti-Americanism, Vuillard also includes the portrait of another American, the long-forgotten Wilson Alwyn Bentley, a New Englander who quietly devoted his life to the study of snowflakes. He made important, painstaking discoveries in the field, yet died in poverty. Both were Americans; both must figure in any equation which purports to resolve the mystery of the American character.

In 2017, Vuillard’s The Order of the Day won by a vote of six to four. It is a tale of the heady events leading up to the Anschluss of 1938 and World War II: German industrialists’ sell-out to the upstart Hitler, the gradual betrayal of the Jews by the Austrian leadership, and the astonishing arrogance of those who convinced themselves they could control, and even direct, the conflagration spreading across Europe. Vuillard innovates in his style, this volatile mélange of fiction and history which he makes no effort to conceal. Yet the viewpoints he espouses reflect the traditional French penchant for social critique. He proposes no simple solutions for humanity’s woes, but in a calm, controlled tone, bears witness to that fact that human indecency is no recent arrival on the world stage. For all too long it has been a discreet part of the order of the day.

The Goncourt, the father of the modern literary prize, has its own progeny, with prizes for first novels, poetry, biographies, and works by high-school students. It also has one slightly illegitimate offspring, the Prix Renaudot.

The Renaudot was created in 1926 at the Drouant restaurant by ten journalists waiting for the results of the Goncourt deliberations. The prize is named after Théophraste Renaudot because the ten journalists had recently collaborated on a biography of the 16th-century humanist, each of them writing one chapter of the book. The award is announced at Drouant on the same day as the Goncourt. The choices of both prizes are often quite divergent, but were not this year, with the common thread being World War II and Nazism. Olivier Guez won the Renaudot for La disparition de Josef Mengele (“The Disappearance of Josef Mengele”), an examination of the postwar existence of the Angel of Death. Guez details Mengele’s incredible good fortune in eluding his pursuers, and readers can only wonder what evil gods were looking out for this murderer.

While both prizes are prestigious, they also have important financial consequences. In France the average print run for a novel is 6,000. With the Renaudot, the figure jumps to about 200,000, and the Goncourt usually reaches 400,000. It seems what is good for French culture is also good for French authors and publishers.