Former film director wins Goncourt prize, France’s most prestigious literary award

France’s top literary prize, the Goncourt, was awarded Tuesday to former film director Jean-Baptiste Andrea for his novel “Veiller sur elle” (“Watch Over Her”) set in Italy’s dark fascist years. 

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Andrea, 52, has made an impact in the English-speaking world with two well-received translations, “A Hundred Million Years and a Day” and “Devils and Saints”. 

His latest 600 page epic focuses on a sculptor and his romance with a woman from a much wealthier background. 

Andrea has forged an unusual path, starting off as a screen writer and film director in a career in cinema saw him make a handful of movies including the 2006 black comedy “Big Nothing” starring the famed “Friends” actor David Schwimmer.

He turned to novels relatively late in his 40s, with his first book published in 2017. “Watch Over Her” is his fourth novel.

“I wanted to write something bigger than what I had written before, to leave behind all the limits that I had initially imposed on myself in 20 years of cinema… but which I had also paradoxically imposed on my first three novels,” he told France Inter radio in late October.

“It’s a homage to Italy, the country of my ancestors,” he added.

In a century-old tradition, the Goncourt winner is revealed at lunchtime at the Drouant restaurant in central Paris

As well as prestige, the award guarantees a boost in sales — on average over the past 20 years, to around 400,000 copies.

Andrea beat off the favourite Eric Reinhardt’s stylistically bold novel about a woman’s decline after leaving her family. 

Reinhardt’s “Sarah, Susanne et l’ecrivain” (“Sarah, Susanne and the Writer”) tells the story of a woman driven to despair by an awful husband. 

In a sign of the tightness of the race, the jury awarded the prize only on the 14th round of voting. “It’s a very emotional moment, I have been drying my tears in the taxi,” Andrea said as he arrived at the restaurant.

Competing prizes 

There are four finalists each year for the prize.

Also in contention was Gaspard Koenig, who had previously focused on philosophical essays, and won many fans with “Humus”, the story of two young agricultural activists opposed to intensive farming.

But one of the contenders, Neige Sinno, had no chance of winning thanks to a long-running rivalry with another award, the Prix Femina, which was created one year after the Goncourt in 1904 to challenge the open sexism of its founders, Jules and Edmond de Goncourt.

Sinno won the Prix Femina on Monday for her story of incest and sexual violence, “Triste tigre” (Sad Tiger) — effectively ruling her out of the Goncourt by the unwritten rules of the rivalry.

Immediately after the Goncourt, and also at the Drouant restaurant, is the awarding of the Renaudot, a much more unpredictable prize.

Initially started as a joke in the 1920s by journalists killing time while waiting for the Goncourt jury, the Renaudot is now considered one of France‘s top awards

That award went to cult novelist Ann Scott for her novel “Les insolents” about a woman in her forties who leaves Paris to reinvent her life.

In an electic career, Scott was a model, a drummer in a punk band and regular on the underground Parisian night scene. She started writing at the age of 29, notably writing the novels “Asphyxia” and then “Superstars”.

The Renaudot prize has not been without controversy over the years, with many accusing its jurors of handing the award to their friends in the chummy literary world of Paris.

That included giving its 2013 essay prize to Gabriel Matzneff, who spent decades writing about his preference for sex with children and faced a rape investigation after the publication of a book “Consent” that has now been made into a movie.


Kim Rodiz

Kim Rodiz is a national journalist who wrote a lot of reports since 2014.

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