Top French literary Goncourt Prize goes to Brigitte Giraud

4 Nov

The ritual has been the same for over a century, as has the media hype: the Prix Goncourt jury meets for lunch at the Drouant restaurant in Paris — to decide who has written the best French novel of the year.


This year, the 10 jurors chose the previously little-known French writer Brigitte Giraud. Her book "Vivre vite" ("Live Fast"), published by Edition Flammario, recapitulates the events surrounding the death of her husband in a motorcycle accident in 1999.

Brigitte Giraud was born in 1960 in Sidi Bel-Abbes (Algeria). She studied German and English and worked as a bookseller for a time in the northern German city of Lübeck. She now lives in Lyon, France, where she organizes a literary festival. She also publishes a literary series at her Paris publishing house, Editions Stock. Giraud has published several novels, most recently "The Foreign Year."

A tragic family history

The Prix Goncourt for Giraud hardly came as a surprise. For weeks, "Vivre vite" had been considered a secret favorite among the four books in the final round.

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In a very personal account, the author describes how she and her husband Claude stood on the threshold of a new beginning. He was 41 years old and had devoted himself to music. She was 36 and writing while working as a bookseller. The couple, parents of a young son, had just bought a house in the outskirts of a town, believing that such a refuge would allow them to live as a carefree family.

But things turned out differently. On June 22, 1999, when Claude was picking up their son from school, he crashed his motorcycle. He died and with him all hopes among the family. "I moved house with our son, in the midst of a rather brutal chronological sequence: the signing of a purchase contract. Accident, relocation. Funeral," writes Brigitte Giraud in the preface to "Vivre vite."

Other writers nominated for the Prix Goncourt

In addition to Brigitte Giraud, three other authors made it to the final round of the Prix Goncourt: French writer Cloe Korman, Italian-Swiss author Giuliano da Empoli and Haitian Makenzy Orcel.

The 49-year-old Giuliano da Empoli was the clear favorite. His novel "Le Mage du Kremlin" (The Wizard in the Kremlin), published in April, was popular with most of the literary journalists surveyed by the trade journal 'Livres Hebdo.'

Eight out of 12 bet on da Empoli, who had previously won the 'Grand Prix du roman of the Academie francaise': His novel about Russia over the past 30 years, — in particular about President Vladimir Putin — had the makings of an extremely rare reflection of reality. Only the American Jonathan Littell had previously received both prizes.

Finally, the hitherto little-known Makenzy Orcel was the second Haitian in a row to make it to the final,  after Louis-Philippe Dalembert the previous year. Orcel's "Une somme humaine" (A Human Sum), published by Rivages, is the monologue of a young French woman looking back at her past.

The Prix Goncourt is a pittance, but pays off

The Prix Goncourt is considered the most prestigious French literary prize. The award comes with a check for a mere €10 ($9.70), which recipients nevertheless prefer to frame rather than deposit in the bank.

Even without prize money, winning the prize pays off: the Goncourt is traditionally awarded shortly before Christmas. For many French people, the award provides an incentive to buy, so the Prix has great economic significance, because it guarantees good sales. "Le Mage du Kremlin," for example, just broke bookseller marks, after very good reviews and more than six months in French bookstores.

A year ago, Senegalese author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr garnered the coveted Prix Goncourt for the best French-language novel of the year. In "La plus secrete memoire des hommes" ("The Most Secret Memory of Men"), Sarr tells the story of a young black man in Paris.

There was a special feature surrounding this year's Prix Goncourt: for the first time, prisoners in France were able to discuss the nominated authors' works and vote for their favorite book. This was intended to give the convicts better access to culture and integrate them into society, according to the French Culture Ministry.


Autor Stefan Dege

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