PARIS — Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, a globe-trotting French author of books exploring indigenous and nomadic cultures in Latin America, Africa and Asia, on Thursday won the Nobel Prize in literature.
Le Clezio, 68, has written about 50 books. He has won critical acclaim and a devoted following in his native France. But his profile remains relatively low even here, and he is largely unknown in the United States.
In announcing the prize Thursday, the Swedish Academy in Stockholm called Le Clezio an "author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner were among leaders celebrating the award. Kouchner, himself an inveterate traveler as a former head of Doctors Without Borders, praised Le Clezio's vast interests, ranging from the pre-Columbian cultures of Mexico to the deserts of Morocco.
"From Albuquerque to Seoul, from New York to Panama, from London to Lagos, Jean-Marie Le Clezio lives, travels, crosses and loves a great number of countries, of peoples, of civilizations, of cultures," Kouchner said.
Le Clezio discussed the honor in an improvised and crowded news conference in the offices of Gallimard, his publisher. Living up to the sobriquet of the "nomad writer," he had just returned from a trip to the Korean peninsula.
He thanked the academy and said he wanted to use the opportunity to send a message to the public: Keep reading novels.
"It is a very good means for questioning the world today, without having answers that are too schematic," he said.
"The novelist is not a philosopher, he is not a technician of the language; he is someone who writes, who asks himself questions. If there is a message to send, it is that we must ask ourselves questions."
The selection marked another year in which the academy declined to pick better-known literary giants who have yet to be honored, such as the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa and American author Philip Roth. The academy also has been criticized in recent years for repeatedly failing to honor North American writers. The last U.S. author to win a Nobel was Toni Morrison in 1993.
Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, said, "I've never heard of him," but cautioned against making a snap judgment just because Le Clezio isn't better known.
He said one point of view is that "it's good because it helps create a whole new readership."
Le Clezio, who is married and has two daughters, spends most of his time in Albuquerque, but also maintains homes in France -- in Nice and Brittany. He makes few public appearances, preferring to travel to remote and rugged places. The newspaper Le Monde described him Thursday as a tall, blond man with the "photogenic allure of an elegant cowboy."
The newspaper said he avoids reading the press and listening to the radio.
Le Clezio was born in Nice on April 13, 1940, and spent part of his childhood in Africa. His father was British and his mother French.
His literary influences include Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad and their themes of restless voyagers and solitary adventurers, according to Le Monde. He served in the French military in overseas posts in Thailand and Mexico.
During the early 1970s he traveled in Latin America, spending months with indigenous communities in Panama that had a profound effect on him.
"This experience changed all of my life, my ideas about the world of art, my way of being with others, of walking, of eating, of sleeping, of loving and even my dreams," he once said.
One of his major works is "Desert," a 1980 novel about a Tuareg woman from the Sahara desert. In a different vein, he wrote "Diego and Frida," a biography of the politically committed Mexican artists and tormented lovers Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, published in 1993.
His most recent novel is "The Tune of Hunger," a portrait of a young Frenchwoman coming of age as World War II looms.
A review in Le Monde this year described it as a moving, expertly drawn portrait.
"Subtle and generous, highly controlled as well -- the composition of the story demonstrates this -- his art is all about compassion and empathy, and rebellion too," the reviewer wrote.
Sicakyuz reported from Paris and Rotella from Madrid. Times Book Editor David L. Ulin in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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The title roll
Some works by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio available in English translations:
"The Interrogation" (1964)
"The Flood" (1967)
"Terra Amata" (1969)
"The Book of Flights:
n Adventure Story" (1971)
"The Giants" (1975)
"The Mexican Dream, or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations" (1993)
"The Prospector" (1993)
"The Round & Other Cold Hard Facts" (2002)
"Wandering Star: A Novel" (2004)
Source: Associated Press