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Centenary of the Prix Goncourt

Edmond and Jules Goncourt in the 1850sOne unmistakable sign of la rentrée, the return for the beginning of the academic year in France, is the speculation about France's most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. Starting in August and September and leading up to the awarding of the prize in December, a huge number of new novels are released to the French public. (The figures this year: 691 novels, 455 of them French, will appear in the month of September, a 4% increase over last year.) In a six-part series called "Cent ans de Goncourt," Raphaëlle Rérolle in Le Monde has been looking back at the history of the Goncourt prize. The first installment (Le rêve d'Edmond, August 24) concerns the life of the prize's namesakes, Edmond and Jules Goncourt (see photo), the brothers best known for their collaboration on a monthly literary journal, whose tone sounds remarkably like a cowritten weblog. Edmond established his underground literary academy, "primarily out of horror for the other academy, the one with a capital 'A'," as a small group of judges. After his death, they met around a restaurant table to award the first prize in 1903. As happens inevitably with artistic rebellion, the anti-institution almost immediately became an institution. You can even examine the venerated tableware used by the ten judges at their annual prize-awarding dinner, which are passed from judge to judge like holy relics. (Since 1983, Daniel Boulanger has been using the fifth place-setting, which passed briefly through the hands of Louis Aragon.)

The other articles in the series include so far L'affaire Proust, August 25 (Proust received the prize in 1919 for the exquisite L'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs [plus Volume 2], with the disapproval of those who thought it indecent for a man with a large personal fortune to receive such an award); Le "non" de Gracq, August 26; and Ajar alias Gary, August 27.

The last two installments of this series are Le cauchemar de Jean Carrière (August 28) and Une vie de juré (August 29). The stories of how the members of the jury cope with reading hundreds of novel are amusing (one complains of back problems from carrying boxes of books everywhere), and the attitudes toward the alleged corruption of the prize by publishing interests are interesting, too.

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