French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, whose vast world travels form the poetic and descriptive backdrop for his body of work, has won the 2008 Nobel Literature Prize.

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The Swedish Academy hailed the 68-year-old Le Clezio as an “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilisation.”

Le Clezio, whose name has been mentioned as a possible Nobel laureate for years and was seen as a favourite this year, said he was “very moved” by the award as he hailed the novel as a vital guide in an uncertain world.

Asked at a press conference in Paris if he had any message for the world, Le Clezio said it would be to “keep asking yourself questions” and “to continue reading novels” because this was a good way to come to terms with the world.

“The novelist is not a philosopher, he is not a language technician, he is someone who writes, who asks himself questions,” added Le Clezio.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed Le Clezio as “one of our greatest writers” who “embodies the grandeur and influence of France, its culture and its values in a globalised world.”

Writer 'an avid traveller'

The newest Nobel laureate is one of the French writers best known outside his country and one of the most wide-ranging in his choice of subject matter.

The Academy cited his novel Revolutions from 2003 as summing up “the most important themes of his work: memory, exile, the reorientations of youth, cultural conflict.”

“The emphasis in Le Clezio's work has increasingly moved in the direction of an exploration of the world of childhood and of his own family history,” it added.

Le Clezio is an avid traveller, and his fiction is as likely to be set in Mexico or the Sahara as in Paris or London.

With his first novel, Le Proces-Verbal (1963, The Interrogation), published when he was only 23, Le Clezio was seen as a newcomer to the Nouveau Roman (New Novel) movement spearheaded by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

But he defied easy classification and rapidly became a cult author, a lonely chronicler – rarely given to making public statements – of the perils of modern life, particularly in its urban variety.

Anglo-French roots

His latest novel Ritournelle de la faim (Same Old Story about Hunger) released this year has been hailed as breaking new ground, exploring French guilt over its wartime past.

The story revolves around Ethel, a young girl growing up in the French bourgeoisie whose self-satisfied existence is shattered by the war.

Among the better-known of his more than 20 novels are La Guerre (1970, War) Mondo (1978), Desert (1980), Le Chercheur d'Or (1985, The Prospector), Onitsha (1991) and Etoile Errante (1992, Wandering Star).

Le Clezio was born in Nice on April 13, 1940 to an English father and French mother; the family had roots in both Brittany and the Indian Ocean island state of Mauritius.

He went on to study literature, and taught briefly at the universities of London and Bristol.

He now shares his time between Albuquerque in New Mexico, Mauritius, and Nice.

Anti-American bias claims

Earlier this year, he won Sweden's Stig Dagerman literary prize.

Le Clezio said he planned to travel to Stockholm to receive that prize on October 25, before returning on December 10 to receive the Nobel diploma, medal and a cheque for 10 million kronor ($A2.14 million at a gala ceremony.

In giving the prize to Le Clezio, the Academy confirmed its predilection for European literature – in the past 20 years, the majority of the laureates have come from Europe, as did last year's winner Doris Lessing of Britain.

The choice came amid a heated debate in Stockholm's literary circles over whether there was an anti-American bias at the Swedish Academy.

In a recent interview with a US news outlet, the Academy's permanent secretary Horace Engdahl criticised American writers for being too influenced by their own popular culture.

The last American to win the prize was Toni Morrison in 1993.

Le Clezio wins Nobel Literature Prize