Hervé Le Tellier wins Prix Goncourt as France's books world begins to reopen

France’s oldest and most celebrated literary award the Prix Goncourt has been awarded to novelist Hervé Le Tellier, a trained mathematician and former scientific journalist.

For the first time in the history of the prize, the winner was announced by video link due to coronavirus restrictions.

Le Tellier’s book, L’anomalie , is set in 2021 on a flight between Paris and New York. The novel is narrated by 11 different passengers on the the flight, including a part-time hit man and a Nigerian pop star.

Le Monde described the book as a page-turner that “flirts with being a thriller and science fiction” and keeps readers guessing with a “very efficient orchestration of suspense”.

Paris-born Le Tellier, 63, a playwright and linguist who is a member of the influential experimental literary society Oulipo, has published around 30 books including poetry and erotica as well as novels, was favourite to win this year. .

L’anomalie is his 21st novel. His first work to come to wider public attention was Les amnésiacs n’ont rien vécu d’inoubliable, translated as A Thousand Pearls (for a Thousand Pennies), which was a collection of 1,000 short sentences all beginning with “Je pense que …” (“I think that …”).

Seven of his books have been translated into English.

The Prix Goncourt, first awarded in 1867, is normally announced each November after the 10-member Goncourt Academy jury enjoy a traditional lunch of lamb stew and olives at the Drouant restaurant near the Opéra Garnier in Paris. This year, restaurants throughout France remain closed until January at the earliest under the country’s Covid-19 lockdown rules, so the winner was announced in a Zoom call.

Also announced on Monday was the winner of the Prix Renaudot, a competing prize for outstanding novels, which was created in 1926 by a group of art critics awaiting the results of the Goncourt. This year it was awarded to Marie-Hélène Lafon for her novel Histoire du fils. She previously won the Renaudot in 2001 for her book Le soir du chien.

The ceremony was postponed from earlier this month in solidarity with France’s bookshops, which were deemed “non-essential” and ordered to close during the lockdown. They were finally allowed to open after restrictions were eased on Saturday.

The Prix Goncourt is worth just €10 but guarantees renown and massive book sales. Previous winners, who include Marcel Proust, André Malraux, Elsa Triolet, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras, have seen novels rack up sales of 400,000 copies.


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