“I’ve always been a fan of Canadian literature. I think it’s important that we celebrate and highlight the extraordinary achievements of our own cultures. It is a privilege and a pleasure to highlight and bring forth the magnificent achievements of Canadian literature through The Giller Prize,” said Justin Trudeau, current Prime Minister of Canada, when it was announced that he was to host the Giller Prize on November 7 2006.
It was my first encounter with the Giller prize. It was the first time I heard about it. Before that, my favorite Canadian authors were Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, M.G. Vassanji, Alice Munro, and Mavis Gallant. I watched the ceremony on TV with awe and followed the authors, read their books and read and watched their interviews. Since then I have become a huge fan of the Giller.
This year, of the five books on the short-list, I liked Samuel Archibald’s “Arvida” the most (translated from French by Donald Winkler). I don’t know what it was but there was something in the way the author told the stories, and how they seemed so personal and hence so original, that touched me. But unfortunately my preference didn’t win. André Alexis won for his book “Fifteen Dogs.”
I felt disappointed and somewhat angry and wished that we readers had a say in who wins. But then I remembered an anecdote about another prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, the biggest prize in France, told by Simone de Beauvoir in three letters to Nelson Algren. She wrote:
“Great literary events in Paris this week. There was the Goncourt prize- that is the most important prize for a novel in the year. The book at once becomes a best-seller; it sells 100,000 at least, which in France is much, and the author is covered with fame and money. Ten old men, a kind of “academy,” give it, and there is a terrible battle between the publishers; they bribe some of the old men, often. The jury is supposed to choose the best novel, but always chooses the worst. So it was a great amazement this year because they really picked the best, Week-end in Zuydcoote, the story of the Dunkerque battle…” (10 Décembre 1949)
“Queneau entered the Goncourt Academy, that is strange and a bit disappointing since it is such a conformist, mild, worth of nothing kind of gang, this thing. Camus, Sartre and myself always said no when asked to enter it.” (Monday, 5 Mars 1951)
“Something very funny happened today! Maybe you remember when Kreswell gave you some books back, I showed to you a piece in one of the booklets where I was mentioned and strangely compared to Pointcaré; it was called “Literature Below the Belt,” something like that, and the author was Julien Gracq. In the same piece, Gracq said how disgusting it is to give prizes to authors, and how they degrade themselves by accepting them. Well, it happened this man wrote a book this year, a dull, sophisticated novel, and the Goncourt Academy decided to give him the prize! Indeed he could not accept after all he had written about it. He gave a lot of interviews saying he would not accept the prize if he got it. But the ten members of the Goncourt Academy, and Queneau among them, said the prize had not to be accepted to be given; they give it as they choose. And indeed today they gave it to Gracq. He is really a man who never tried to get publicity, wrote one, two books which did not intend to sell well.” (Tuesday, 20 Novembre 1951)