Lullaby by J-M. G. Le Clézio

January 15, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Lullaby by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. 1978. Lullaby is a short-story (novella?) included in Mondo and Other Stories.

Reading this was a mother-daughter readalong. My daughter had a school assignment; she had to choose a book, read it and fill in a reading form about it. I don’t know how it is in other countries but in France, teachers are sort of fans of reading forms. Lullaby was on the children book shelves at home, among my children books and books I buy for them from time to time. I try to select literary ones from well-knows writers.

Lullaby is a girl who decides she won’t go to high school again. She lives by the sea and she’s uprooted in this town, but we don’t know why. School is a prison except for physics classes. When she ditches school, she starts taking walks on the smugglers path along the sea. The sea here is probably the Mediterranean, according to the description of the landscape and the wildlife.

Lullaby has a secret, her father is away or gone but we don’t know why. She writes him letters, read his letters, let their words fly into the sky. She seeks for freedom by the sea and a connection with her beloved father too. She melts into the natural elements, the sea, the wind, the scents penetrate her being through all her pores and senses.

Lullaby était pareille à un nuage, à un gaz, elle se mélangeait à ce qui l’entourait. Elle était pareille à l’odeur des pins chauffés par le soleil, sur les collines, pareille à l’odeur de l’herbe qui sent le miel. Elle était l’embrun des vagues où brille l’arc-en-ciel rapide. Elle était le vent, le souffle froid qui vient de la mer, le souffle chaud comme une haleine qui vient de la terre fermentée au pied des buissons. Elle était le sel, le sel qui brille comme le givre sur les vieux rochers, ou bien le sel de la mer, le sel lourd et âcre des ravins sous-marins. Lullaby was like a cloud, a gas, she melted in what surrounded her. She was like the scent of the pine trees heated by the sun on the hills, like the scent of the grass with the honey smell. She was the spume of the waves where the quick rainbow shines. She was the wind, the cold blow coming from the sea, the warm blow like a breath coming up from the fermented earth at the bushes feet. She was the salt, the salt that glitters like frost on the old rocks; or the sea salt, the heavy and acrid salt from the undersea ravines.

As always, Le Clézio’s prose is full of poetry. He was born in Nice and although the coast he describes here has white rocks and Greek houses, I couldn’t help thinking about the Estérel coast between Nice and Cannes. I’ve been there many times and Lullaby’s errands on that smugglers path reminded me of mine on the customs officer path along the sea. I know how she finds her way among the rocks, looking for the best passage, climbing under the sun on the heated rocks. I know the scent of the sun on the pine trees mixed with the salty breath of the nearby sea. I was there with her.

Lullaby is a tribute to the sea whose vastness makes us feel Lilliputian. With her overwhelming presence, the sea shrinks our earthly worries to a speck of dust.  

Lullaby ne pensait même plus à l’école. La mer est comme cela : elle efface les choses de la terre parce qu’elle est ce qu’il y a de plus important au monde. Le bleu, la lumière étaient immenses, le vent, les bruits violents et doux des vagues, et la mer ressemblait à un grand animal en train de remuer sa tête et de fouetter l’air avec sa queue. Lullaby didn’t think about school anymore. The sea is like this: it erases the earthly things because she is the most important thing in the world. The blue, the light were immense, the wind, the violent and smooth noises of the waves. And the sea looked like an animal moving its head and wagging the air with its tail.

I’ve spent hours sitting on these rocks, reading in the sun, watching the turquoise water move back and forth, feeling the wind in my hair. I understand Lullaby’s fascination. My daughter knows that path too, she’s been there several times and she has a lot of fun climbing the rocks, reaching a small beach or going by the sea. She also pictured that place when she read Lullaby and she enjoyed the novella because it brought back vivid images of her holidays. She understood that it’s a story about loneliness and travelling in one’s mind.

Such readalongs are tricky for me. On the one hand, I enjoy reading her books and discussing them with her. It’s an opportunity to share and nourish the pleasure of reading in her. On the other hand, I feel like an intruder. Reading is something personal and you shouldn’t be obliged to talk about what you’ve read if you don’t feel like to. So I’m not asking too many questions, I don’t push too far; I leave to the teacher the disagreeable role of pulling out emotions and analysis from her.


  1. January 15, 2012 at 3:05 am

    Does she have to read the book to you or vice-versa?


    • January 15, 2012 at 10:28 am

      None of this. She read it first and then we discussed it and filled the Fiche de lecture.


  2. January 15, 2012 at 7:54 am

    This sounds lovely. I haven’t read much of him although I have a huge pile.
    I remember this region very well from my childhood.
    The last part you wrote speaks a lot to me. I started studying modern litertaure and then couldn’t handle to talk about what I really felt and thought, it was too private for me, so I switched to old literature, Middle Ages, Renaissance because that was far “safer”. It was an excellent choice. While you can respond the same way to old books, you can avoid talking about it because you can focus on philosophy, history.
    The school system in France is very formalized.


    • January 15, 2012 at 10:33 am

      I’ve read his essay about Mexico, Le rêve mexicain. It was difficult for me but interesting. I read “Printemps et autres seasons”, it’s good too.
      I have “Etoile errante” at home (Wandering Star) and I heard it’s excellent.


  3. January 15, 2012 at 9:51 am

    That’s an interesting idea – I’m not quite at that stage (my daughters rely on Daddy for reading at the moment!). I doubt we’ll be reading a lot of the same books though…


    • January 15, 2012 at 10:36 am

      It’s a nice thing to do from time to time. I loved having them on my lap and reading stories. Profite-en bien ils grandissent vite.


  4. January 16, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    Hi Emma, and a belated Happy New Year! I’ve been meaning to read something by Le Clezio ever since he won the Nobel Prize, but somehow never got around to it. This sounds beautiful from the extracts you print. Thanks for doing it in both French and English! Interesting to compare the two. I like the idea of a reading form, something we never had in England. I read a lot as a child, but never analysed the books very much, and something like that might have been useful for me, to get me to think more about them and how they worked. Good for you for reading along with her, but not pushing her too much!


    • January 16, 2012 at 11:32 pm

      Hi Andrew,

      Happy New Year to you too.

      I really want to read Wandering Star. There’s a good review on Lisa’s blog. (ANZ Litlovers)
      I translated the quotes, so don’t rely too much on the English version. I’m not a translator and French to English is the most difficult for me. I always put the two languages when I read French literature as a lot of readers can read the French too.

      That reading form is a sort of outline of a review. The questions are basically: who wrote the book? Who are the main characters? What are the main themes? What does it tell? Why did you enjoy or not the book?
      Honestly, in my experience, reading forms like this are OK because you choose the book yourself and it’s an opportunity to share about your reading. Otherwise, I’m not sure analysing books does any good to literature unless you’re in uni and chose literature as a major.


  5. January 16, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    I know just what you mean about not wanting to intrude on your child’s reading. I always felt I ought to discuss books with my son, but in the end I never did. It seemed enough to know he’d enjoyed it or been avid for more chapters. This sounds a lovely book. I tried to read Le Clezio’s L’Etoile errante a couple of years ago and although the writing was gorgeous, I had to give up because the story was just so relentlessly bleak and tragic. Powerful stuff, though.


    • January 16, 2012 at 11:39 pm

      I always felt I ought to discuss books with my son

      That’s how I feel too, especially the “ought to” part.
      I keep thinking “I love books so much, I must pass this on to my children” but I don’t know how. If I push too much, I’m afraid they just reject it as a chore. If I let it go, I’m missing an opportunity to share my passion and share something with them.
      So I’m in the middle of the river: I suggest “why don’t you take a book?” anytime I hear “I’m bored”; I cleared a shelf in the library for children books TBR; I get them subscriptions to children magazines; I take them to the public library.
      I can’t tell if it will work, but I hope so.


  6. January 17, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    I suspect the form is to make sure students actually read the book. You can crib an essay online, but cribbing the answers to a particular form is likely harder.

    It does sound very poetic. Very personal. Possibly a good book to read during adolescence in some ways. It is after all the age at which we are most extravagantly lonely.

    One other benefit of the reading form is it sounds less likely to destroy a book. How many of us hate books we would have loved, but for studying them in detail at school until nothing was left but dry analysis? I’m not of course arguing against analysing books, but the way it’s done in school (or was done in school anyway, with the best of intentions) can end up stifling a text.


    • January 17, 2012 at 3:22 pm

      She’s only 10, Max. The teacher uses reading forms as a first approach to analysis and because they are too young to write actual essays. I think that teachers shouldn’t go into details when analysing books in high school. It would be more interesting to talk about the context, the general frame of the book and the type of narration than analyse in detail specific chapters and discuss for hours why Balzac used this precise word and not another.

      Lullaby is very poetic and I think you’d like it. It’s a great book for teenagers. It could be labelled YA but we don’t have this category here.


  7. Robert Gordon
    July 16, 2022 at 2:18 pm

    I read this book for my French book club. What did the stranger at the second house represent to Lullaby?


  1. April 27, 2014 at 6:38 am
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