Brigitte Giraud: How a novel about husband’s death earned her France biggest literary prize

Brigitte Giraud: How a novel about husband’s death earned her France biggest literary prize

Thursday, November 3, 2022 5:35 pm


Brigitte Giraud

By Nehru Odeh

Brigitte Giraud has won this year’s Prix Goncourt, the oldest and most prestigious literary prize in France. Giraud, the 13th woman to win the prize in 120 years, clinched it with Vivre Vite (Living Fast, an autobiographical novel about the death of her husband.

Still, the most fascinating thing about this year’s prize is that 56-year-old Giraud was declared winner on Thursday after the jury voted 14 times. After a final vote ended in stalemate, the president of the Goncourt Academy cast a deciding vote, choosing Giraud over her closest rival Giuliano Empoli. 

Vivre Vite, a short autobiographical story, recounts the chain of events leading to the death of her husband Claude in a motorbike accident in 1999, leaving her with a young son and a recently signed contract to buy a new family home.

The novel explores the cause of the motorcycle accident that killed her husband and the tiny twists of fate that might have prevented it. With a series of “what ifs,” Giraud reflects on the role that chance plays in life.

“Accident, move, funeral,” she writes in an account laden with anger and remorse and punctuated by the eternal questions of why, how and what if.

“When no disaster occurs, we move forward without looking back, we stare straight ahead at the horizon. When a tragedy occurs, we turn back, we come back to haunt the place, we proceed to the reconstruction. We want to understand the origin of each gesture, each decision. We rewind a hundred times. You become a specialist in cause and effect. We track down, we dissect, we autopsy. We want to know everything about human nature, the intimate and collective forces that make what happens happen,” Giraud writes.

Vivre Vite is also a vivid portrait of France in the 1990s, drawing on its central characters’ desire to leave the dreary suburbs of Lyon, the city where they live, and sketching out the social and political issues of the time.

Da Empoli, who won the Gran Roman, another of France prestigious literary prizes earlier this year had been tipped to win this year’s Goncourt for his book, Le Mage du Kremlin (The Kremlin’s Sorcerer), an account of the last 30 years in Russia under Vladimir Putin that has sold nearly 100, 000 copies since it was published six months ago.

Haitian novelist Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s book Milwaukee Blues, published in 2021, and Cloé Korman’s Les Presque Soeurs (The Almost Sisters) were also on the four-book shortlist.

In 2007, Giraud, a former journalist, won the Goncort prize for a newcomer for L’Amour est très surestimé (Love is very overestimated).

The Goncourt, France’s oldest and most celebrated literary award, is announced each November after the 10-member Goncourt Academy jury – made up of three women and seven men – enjoy a traditional lunch of lamb stew and olives at the Drouant restaurant near the Opéra Garnier in Paris.

The prize is worth just €10 but guarantees renown and massive book sales. Most winners prefer to frame rather than cash their Goncourt cheque.

Previous winners, who include Marcel Proust, André Malraux, Elsa Triolet, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras, have seen novels rack up sales of 400,000 copies.

Giraud is also the author of several other novels and short story collections, none of which have been published in English, though many previous Goncourt winners have later landed translation deals.

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