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The Apogee of Mainstream and 'Popular Literature' in the New Prix Goncourt

Jean-Baptiste Andrea at the festival Livre sur le Quais (2019), by ActuaLitté (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

A red band on the cover is equivalent to a distinction among the hundreds of books published each rentrée littéraire; it is a remedy against oblivion, the natural amnesia of readers. With the Goncourt, one waits for the laureate’s next publication— one compares, one criticises, one buys.

On November 7th 2023, the members of the Goncourt jury met at the habitual Drouant restaurant to award the prize to the novel Veiller sur elle, and consequently to the author Jean-Baptiste Andrea with ten symbolic euros. The writer’s shock to the announcement and the impatience in withdrawing his prize was such that he relates the failure to put his contact lenses on, completely myopic in front of the jury. Coincidentally the blindness to the Goncourt of this year is total.

Published by the Editions de l’Iconoclaste, a small house asserting itself for the first time against the giants Gallimard and Grasset, Veiller sur elle is the novel of déjà-vu, a romanesque page-turner devoid of style and originality. In an exaggerated Dickensian vein, we reunite painfully with convention while the protagonist— Michelangelo, a sculptor, do you sense a commonplace already?— distinguishes himself from the archetypal man, orphan of his father, prodigy entrusted to the care of a cruel uncle. Only the character attracts no mercy as he is detestable and conscious of his talent. Doesn’t genius reside in the absence of its recognition? The author attempts to create an element of surprise when making his character a ‘midget’ after fifty pages— when did we ever agree on distasteful plot twists centred around the size of characters? With this revelation, the literary topos of the dwarf serving as a circus beast is feared: a novel without the passage under the tent would be too innovative. Change of scenery zero, it comes as no stupor that the author finally indulges in this tradition during an extensive parenthesis where Mimo becomes the clown of a troupe on the fringes of society.

The novel is sold as a love letter to Italy and its metamorphoses during the first half of the 20th century. You get phrases like “It wasn’t the most beautiful city in Italy but it was the most beautiful.” Andrea did his research on the period, which is certain yet quite uninteresting. Mimo reads the Corriere, recites the names of the popes and winds of Italy in a languid chorus that links him with Viola, the only interesting central character. The young girl, born into an aristocratic family and surrounded by men who embrace in a cartoonish vein the misogyny of the period, is an intellectual gifted for her age who lies on graves to hear voices and finds a touching friendship with a bear. Still the climax of her description is the possessing of small breasts, and that there is possibly a beauty to the lack of padding— deep. From the back cover, we are promised a refreshing romance between the two characters, and perhaps the very originality of the work lies in the fact that it is non-existent. A mystery hangs over the story, and a rather heavy teasing flattens out steadily at the end of chapters for nearly 600 pages— ironic for a novel of change where ‘everything went too fast’.

By rewarding Proust, Beauvoir or Modiano, the prize honoured a demanding literature, which does not mean incomprehensible; there was an idea of standing, and this without any desire for intellectual snobbery. Jean-Baptiste Andrea’s style, while risking itself from time to time in poetic yet not quite memorable nominal sentences, is banal. Where Brigitte Giraud, winner of the prize last year, indulged in a tyranny of ‘if’, and Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, the year before, crafted a remarkable book epic, Veiller sur elle remains on the reserve with its hyper-romance and its recovery of the genre’s codes. Philippe Claudel, jury of the prize, describes the text as ‘high-quality popular literature', and it is implied that the main justification that allowed the book to be rewarded is its reassuring aspect, with devices worthy of high school essays. There is a will to make literature accessible to all, to the detriment of rigorously ambitious books that venture to innovate and have a less direct style of simplicity.

Veiller sur elle will be remembered for its interesting reflections on the art of sculpture and the retracing of a historical period with laborious detail. Yet there is persistently the wondering of what has become of an award for excellence and originality.


Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor


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