The Goncourt Prize: A few facts and winners you need to know
Published on April 29, 2022 / Updated on January 8, 2024
Even though its actual monetary value is next to nothing, the prix Goncourt is one of the most important French literary prizes, both in terms of critical acclaim and commercial success. Previous winners of the coveted Goncourt Prize feature some of the most famous French writers. Book sales also significantly benefit from the annual award. While we wish we could dive deep into each book and author who have won the Goncourt Prize, we’ll narrow in on a few notable facts about the Goncourt Prize and its distinguished laureates.
Among the myriad of French literary prizes, the prix Goncourt is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious. It is also the oldest one, with the first prize having been awarded in 1903, over a century ago. The award is granted every year in early November by the Académie Goncourt to honor the “best imagination work in prose published during the year”.
The selection of the winner follows a well-oiled ritual, with three voting rounds to narrow down the finalists. In the last round, only four contenders are left. Their names are picked from a champagne bucket and each academy member declares their vote aloud. There is an even number of voters soif no winner is selected after 14 voting rounds, the president’s vote counts for two in order to settle the matter.
The prize is now a symbolic check of ten euros. However, the value of the Goncourt Prize lies in the recognition by the ten academy members, who are all highly established writers. In fact, several of the current members are Goncourt Prize winners. The prize is also synonymous with a significant boost in book sales.
Another principle of the Goncourt Prize stipulates that a writer cannot receive the reward more than once. The rule was broken on only one occasion when Romain Gary fooled everyone in 1975 : that year, he was honored a second time for the novel La vie devant soi (The Life Before Us), which he published under the pseudonym of Emile Ajar. The author had already won the Goncourt Prize nearly 20 years before in 1956, for Les Racines du ciel (The Roots of Heaven). In the end though, he is just one of many famous French writers who have won the Goncourt Prize.
Marcel Proust is one of the earliest authors to have won the Goncourt Prize : À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower), the second volume of À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), won the award in 1919. Rather than telling a succession of events, the literary masterpiece focuses on the narrator’s subjective memories and inner thoughts, such as with the renowned episode of the madeleine. With long sentences displaying a complex syntax, Proust’s style is both elaborate and elegant.
After Les Conquérants (The Conquerors) and La Voie Royale (The Royal Way), La Condition Humaine (Man’s Fate) is the last book in André Malraux’s trilogy on revolution in Asia. Set in Shanghai in March 1927, the novel follows four communist characters, as they prepare an insurrection in the city to pave the way for Chiang Kai-shek’s army. The events serve to reflect both a certain sense of absurdity and the notion of being able to triumph over one’s fate through the greater scheme of History.
Awarded with the Goncourt Prize in 1948, Les Grandes Familles (The Rise of Simon Lachaume) is the first of three volumes that span between the two World Wars, from 1916 to 1939, through the lives of several members of the Parisian elite. Maurice Druon, its author, has gathered critical and popular success for his extremely detailed historical sagas and biographies of kings and political leaders like Charles de Gaulle or Napoléon. His most famous novel may be Les Rois maudits (The Accursed Kings), which has reportedly inspired Game of Thrones.
While Simone de Beauvoir may be more famous for Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex), her groundbreaking book on feminism, she actually won the Goncourt Prize in 1954 for Les Mandarins (The Mandarins). The novel follows a group of Parisian intellectuals during years of political and personal turmoil, from the end of World War II in 1944 to the mid-fifties, at the dawn of the Algerian War and the Cold War.
The second female writer on our list, Marguerite Duras won the Goncourt Prize in 1986 for her semi-autobiographical novel L’Amant (The Lover). It portrays the illicit romance between a 15-year-old girl and a Chinese-Vietnamese man twelve years her senior, with French Indochina in the background. One of the best-selling books in the whole history of the Goncourt Prize, it was turned into a film by Jean-Jacques Annaud.
Probably the most controversial author in our list, Michel Houellebecq won the Goncourt Prize in 2010 for La carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory). The novel depicts the creative and personal life of Jed Martin, a fictional artist who gains recognition thanks to his photographs of Michelin maps. With an interesting twist of life imitating art, the successful artist even gets to meet Michel Houellebecq a few months before the latter gets murdered.
There is so much more that could be said about the Goncourt Prize, its history and its winners, and so many more books and authors we could recommend. But like Proust’s madeleine, this article serves as a mere appetizer for future literary treats. Meandering reminiscences, philosophic reflections, historical epics, passionate love stories and artistic tales, you’re bound to find a book to your taste.