STOCKHOLM/PARIS (Reuters) - French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, a globetrotting novelist hailed as a child of all continents, won the Nobel prize for literature on Thursday.
The Swedish Academy, which decides the winner of the coveted 10 million Swedish crown ($1.4 million) prize, praised the 68-year-old's adventurous novels, essays and children's books.
"His works have a cosmopolitan character. Frenchman, yes, but more so a traveler, a citizen of the world, a nomad," Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Academy, told a news conference to announce the laureate.
Underlining his international credentials, Le Clezio, who describes himself as French and Mauritian, answered questions in English, French and Spanish at a Paris press conference.
"Some kind of incredulity, some kind of awe, then some kind of enjoyment and mirth," he said, describing how he felt when he heard the news. Questioned about what he would do with the prize money, he added: "I have debts. I'm going to pay them."
Engdahl stirred up resentment among some U.S. authors and critics in the run-up to this year's announcement by saying American writers were too insular and did not participate in the "big dialogue" of literature. The last American to win the literature Nobel was novelist Toni Morrison in 1993.
When asked about the issue, Le Clezio replied: "I don't think you can say American literature is any one thing, because it takes many forms."
He added that Philip Roth, a perennial favorite among bookmakers to scoop the Nobel, would be a worthy winner.
"He will certainly win this prize, and even if he doesn't he will remain a very great writer."
Nice-born Le Clezio moved to Nigeria with his family at the age of eight. He wrote his first works -- "Un Long Voyage" and "Oradi Noir" -- during the month-long journey.
According to the Academy's Web site, he studied English at a British university and taught at institutions in Bangkok, Mexico City, Boston, Austin and Albuquerque, among others.
Le Clezio also spent long periods in Mexico and Central America and married a Moroccan woman in 1975. Since the 1990s he and his wife have shared their time between Albuquerque in New Mexico, the island of Mauritius and Nice, the Academy added.
The author said he believed French culture was a melting pot of influences.
"The French language is a result of a mix of cultures. It has received contributions from every corner of the world. That is what is wonderful about French culture. It is a place of encounters."
Le Clezio's first novel was "Le proces-verbal" (The Interrogation), written when he was 23. It went on to win the Renaudot prize in France.
Seen as an experimental writer in the 1960s, Le Clezio was preoccupied by themes including the environment and childhood.
His big breakthrough came in 1980 with "Desert," which the Academy said "contains magnificent images of a lost culture in the North African desert, contrasted with a depiction of Europe seen through the eyes of unwanted immigrants."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed the award.
"A child of Mauritius and Nigeria, a teenager in Nice, a nomad of the American and African deserts, Jean-Marie Le Clezio is a citizen of the world, a child of all continents and of all cultures," Sarkozy said in a statement.
"A great traveler, he embodies the global reach of France's culture and values in a globalized
All but one of the prizes were established in the will of 19th century dynamite tycoon Alfred Nobel and have been handed out since 1901. The economics award was established by Sweden's central bank in 1968.
(Additional reporting by Adam Cox in Stockholm, Mike Collett-White in London and Estelle Shirbon in Paris)
Writing by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato