Nicolas Mathieu has won France’s top literary award, the Goncourt Prize, for “Leurs Enfants Après Eux” (“Their Children After Them”), a portrait of teenagers growing up in a forgotten, hopeless region of France in the 1990s.
The novel was a surprise winner when it was announced on Wednesday, but it has already been bought by Other Press for publication in the United States at the end of 2019 with the title “The Children Who Came After Them.”
“Nicolas understands the destitute, the working class, in a way that most writers don’t,” Judith Gurewich, the publisher of Other Press, said in a telephone interview. The book would resonate with non-French readers, she said, because every country has areas left behind by deindustrialization, where people are angry.
“It’s also one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve read in years,” Gurewich added.
The winner — chosen by 10 members of the Goncourt Academy, a French literary society — receives a symbolic prize of 10 euros, or about $11, but the award usually results in a huge sales increase. The prize has been awarded since 1903 at the Drouant restaurant in Paris, with previous winners including Marcel Proust, Michel Houellebecq and, in 2017, Éric Vuillard. Mathieu won the prize by a vote of 6 to 4.
“It is quite a vertigo moment,” the 40-year-old Mathieu said in a telephone interview. “Writing is a lonely activity, and suddenly I am in the middle of the spotlight.”
“It’s quite disturbing, but it’s good for the book,” he added. “I’m pleased it will find its audience.”
“Their Children After Them,” Mathieu’s second novel, is focused on a group of teenagers who live in a valley in eastern France that has seen better days. The local blast furnaces have just closed; teenagers now throw rocks at the empty buildings rather than expecting to work inside.
The novel follows the teenagers across four summers, both their ups — such as a first love — and their many setbacks, as they try to escape the area.
Mathieu’s book has been acclaimed in France for shining a light on a forgotten part of the country. “By focusing on the margins of society, Nicolas Mathieu sees what the tinkerers of comforting literature miss,” said a report in Le Figaro, the daily newspaper.
“This is an important book, whose characters stay with us long after the last pages have been turned,” wrote journalist Alexandra Schwartzbrod in Libération, a left-leaning daily, adding that “it gives us the keys to better understand the extent of the current rejection of our political and economic elites.”
The award comes at a time of growing frustration in France with President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to overhaul the economy, which are seen as favoring the rich. Several political blunders have reinforced that view. Macon was recently captured on video lecturing an out-of-work gardener in Paris to look harder for a job. “Emmanuel Macron should read this book,” Paule Constant, one of the prize’s jurors, told Le Figaro.
“I wanted to say what it’s like to grow up in a world that is finished, with an inheritance you don’t want, in a place where you are very far from the big city,” Mathieu said. “I wanted to speak for those people, not to judge, but to understand.”
Mathieu is not the only French author to have received domestic acclaim and international attention for writing about working-class youth. Writers like Didier Eribon and Édouard Louis have also been praised for their work.
Louis, who went on to find global success, came to attention with “The End of Eddy,” about growing up gay in a postindustrial region of northern France. It is a book filled with violence and despair.
Mathieu grew up in a small town in eastern France, the son of an electrical mechanic and an accountant. He witnessed the impacts of deindustrialization, too. The novel is not based on his own childhood, he said, “But I know that place.” He has been influenced by American authors such as John Steinbeck and Larry Brown, he added, and hoped that would be obvious to any reader.
“Their Children After Them” is not trying to provide a solution to the region’s problems, Mathieu added. “It’s not pessimistic or optimistic. I guess it’s realistic,” he said.
“My part is to write accurately about this world and the people who grow up in that place,” he added. “They have a lot of problems, but they have a bit of freedom and they can keep trying to succeed.”