Jean-Baptiste Andrea received the Goncourt Prize, France’s most prestigious literary award, on Tuesday for his novel “Watching Over Her,” or “Veiller Sur Elle.”
The novel, published by L’Iconoclaste, a small, independent publisher, is a sprawling fresco and star-crossed love story that follows Michelangelo “Mimo” Vitaliani, a dwarf and skilled sculptor who at the end of his life is said to be “watching over” his masterpiece, a mysteriously powerful sculpture.
Andrea, 52, a former screenwriter and film director, sets the nearly 600-page novel across several tumultuous decades in 20th-century Italy, including the years of fascism’s rise, when Mimo, young and poor, forges an intense bond with Viola Orsini, the adventurous and ambitious daughter of an aristocratic family.
The 10 members of the Goncourt Academy, the French literary society that awards the prize, made their announcement at lunchtime at the Paris restaurant Drouant, where the winners have been declared since 1914.
“It’s an extraordinary moment,” Andrea said, looking astonished, after the announcement. “It rewards a kid who dreamed 43 years ago of becoming a writer,” he added.
In literary-crazed France, the Goncourt is the most coveted book award, one that can crown a distinguished career or suddenly launch a newer one. Past winners have included Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Patrick Modiano, who was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Dozens of journalists crammed into the restaurant to hear the winner on Tuesday. For the second year in a row, the laureate was chosen after 14 rounds of voting in a process that culminated with Didier Lecoin, the jury president, breaking a 5-5 stalemate.
Lecoin said the jury had been split between Andrea’s book and “Sarah, Susanne and the Writer” (“Sarah, Susanne et l’Écrivain”), by Éric Reinhardt, whom some critics considered the favorite to win the prize, and who was published by Gallimard, one of France’s most powerful and influential publishing houses.
Reinhardt’s novel tells the complex, interwoven tales of women fighting to free themselves from mediocre, domineering husbands: Sarah, a dissatisfied housewife who temporarily leaves her husband, and Susanne, her fictional double, created by a writer Sarah confides in.
“It’s the fault of authors who have too much talent,” Lecoin said of the jurors’ split. “Two excellent books, very different from one another.”
Philippe Claudel, another juror, said that Andrea’s book would appeal to a broad audience. “It’s high-quality popular literature,” Claudel said. “And that is what the Goncourt is about, too.”
Lecoin called the book “extremely refreshing,” like a “hyacinth emerging in the undergrowth” on a spring morning that would offer readers respite from a somber news cycle.
The four-book shortlist also included “Humus” by Gaspard Koenig, which tells the story of two student agronomists beset by climate anxiety who both try to use earthworms to heal the planet but end up on radically divergent paths; and “Triste Tigre” (“Sad Tiger”) by Neige Sinno, a little-known French author who lives in Mexico, which is a harrowing account and analysis of her rape by her stepfather when she was a child living in the French Alps.
The Goncourt comes with a symbolic award of 10 euros (about $10). It also immediately thrusts the winner into the spotlight and tends to lead to a sharp spike in sales in the run-up to Christmas. The 2019 winner, “The Anomaly,” a science-fiction thriller about the mysteries surrounding a Paris-New York flight, has sold more than a million copies in France, an unusually high figure even for a Goncourt winner.
Last year’s prize went to Brigitte Giraud for “Vivre Vite,” or “Living Fast,” which explores the causes of an accident that killed her partner and the tiny twists of fate that might have prevented it. She was only the 13th woman to be awarded the prize in 120 years.
Andrea started writing in his 40s after a decades-long career in cinema — one of his movies, the 2006 black comedy “Big Nothing,” stars David Schwimmer and Simon Pegg. Some of his novels have already been translated into English and been well-received, including “A Hundred Million Years and a Day” and “Devils and Saints.”
Andrea said that fiction enabled him to reconnect with the joy of writing that he had lost in his movie work. He said he was inspired by Italian, French and American writers, including John Fante.
On Tuesday morning, the rush to get a taxi from his publishers’ office to Drouant had been so quick that the writer hadn’t even had time to put his contact lenses on, making him “completely myopic,” he joked as he gazed, bewildered, at jury members and journalists.
The story of “Watching Over Her” had come to him because of a desire to reconnect with Italy, “the country of my ancestors,” Andrea said, and because he was a firm believer in the power of sweeping fiction.
“A great love story,” he said. “That’s what makes the world go around, no?”