What is French Prix Goncourt and who is the new winner?

Prestigious literary award is often seen as equal in stature to Nobel Prize for Francophone authors

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French author Jean-Baptiste Andrea has won the 2023 Prix Goncourt for his novel Veiller sur elle.

The 52-year old, who is also a director and screenwriter, published the novel earlier this year to critical acclaim.

The story follows a diminutive sculptor in his dying days as he comes to terms with his memories and the secrets of his last marble statue. It is Jean-Baptiste Andrea’s fourth novel.

Mr Andrea has also written and directed films including Big Nothing, La Confrérie des larmes, and cult horror classic Dead End.

He joins a list of authors including Simone de Beauvoir, Marcel Proust and André Malraux who have been granted the prestigious prize.

What is the Prix Goncourt?

Awarded since 1903, the Prix Goncourt is given to the author of the best book written in the French language that year, as judged by the Académie Goncourt.

The award is one of the most prestigious in France, and is on par with (and viewed by some with higher regard than) the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The winning novel must originally be in French, but does not necessarily have to be by a French author.

Alongside the historical greats mentioned above, in more recent years authors such as Leïla Slimani and the controversial Michel Houellebecq have won the prize.

Writers from other Francophone countries (like Belgium, Senegal, and Morocco, where Miss Slimani was born) have won it, and in 2008 Atiq Rahimi, an Afghan who moved to France in the 1980’s, won the Goncourt for his novel Syngué Sabour: La pierre de patience, written in French.

The Académie Goncourt is made up of 10 well-known French writers, who meet a number of times per year at the Hotel Drouant in Paris.

What does the winner receive?

The winner receives only a token €10 prize (the same amount given in francs to the first winner in 1903).

However, the award inexorably leads to a huge spike in sales, both for the winning novel and for other books written by the same author.

Their profile and prestige is also raised, both within literary circles and in everyday French life.

Alongside the main award, four other prizes (for a debut novel, poetry, biography, and short story) are also awarded by the jury.

Read more: Six things that show the French love for books and reading

Sprinklings of controversy

Although it now holds a key space in the French cultural calendar, the award has seen its fair share of controversy.

Immediately after Edmond de Goncourt announced the first jury for the 1903 award, a number of writers took umbrage with the judges being exclusively male.

An all-female jury would form to judge the Prix Femina, an award that is still given today (although both men and women can win the award).

While women were ultimately included on the Goncourt jury, this did not end the controversy.

In 2021, François Noudelmann, the husband of judge Camille Laurens saw his novel make it to the list of finalists.

Other writers expressed anger after Mrs Laurens voted for her husband’s book, with some calling it favouritism. The prize was ultimately won that year by Senegalese author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr.

As a result of the backlash, the rules were changed to disqualify the novels of family members of the jury from the competition.

Read more: French writer reveals secrets of translating a great novel

Writer defied rules to win twice

Perhaps the most famous story regarding the Prix Goncourt relates to author Romain Gary.

Mr Gary won the prize in 1956 for his novel Les racines du ciel, however the rules of the prize state that an author can only win it once (partly because it is intended to shine a spotlight on less-established authors and not on already-recognised ones like the Nobel Prize does).

Unhappy with this rule, and believing he could win the award again, he published another novel under the pseudonym of Émile Ajar, which won the prize in 1975.

Mr Gary hired his nephew Paul Pavlowitch to pose in public as ‘Mr Ajar’ and collect the award. He would only admit to this ruse in his posthumous memoirs.

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