I once told a friend that, as part of my lifetime reading odyssey, I plan to read at least one work by each of the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Giving me a look like some old uncle suffering his callow but amusing nephew, he said, “That’s an…unusual way to organize your reading.” “Unusual” was clearly his cover word for “completely daft. Idiotic, even.” I got the message and quietly put away what I had stupidly hoped would be an interesting conversation.
The rant about how Stockholm’s annual bear hug to literature is a highly unreliable measure of actual excellence has long been sung in hearty chorus and scarcely requires further rehearsal. In 1998, just before José Saramago won, the New Yorker ran an article about the prize. I remember the author’s cagey assertion about the previous year’s laureate. “That there are hundreds of first rate playwrights at work in the world goes without saying. That Dario Fo is not one of them also goes without saying.” I remember smiling at this formulation, as I was no doubt intended to, pleased to chalk in a point next to the author’s name on his own scoreboard of wit. I have since come to suspect that Mr. Fo, whatever his failings, probably does not deserve quite such a tidy dismissal. But the author’s point was, and remains, valid: Why give the time of day to an institution that blessed Sully Prudhomme while mooning Rilke?
So. Let’s imagine the perfect prize. One in which all wrongs are made right. Nabokov is there, sticking out his tongue at Borges who turns a beatific blind eye. Theodor Dreiser is there too, wondering what became of his less gifted compatriot, Sinclair Lewis, no where to be found, while the patrician Henry James transcends concern about either. Ibsen occupies the seat never comfortable to the backside of José Echegaray y Eizaguirre. Philip long ago joined Joseph to become the second Roth on the list. There is a formidable contingent of African writers, Asian writers, masters of Urdu and Farci. It occurs to no one to remark of the women on the list what number they were.
Now, for just a moment, try to see through this hypothetical haze of righteousness. How much fun would such a prize actually be? In fact, could such a prize serve any purpose at all? A prize is the denouement of a game, and if all the players are shew-ins, why bother. Games are one of the ways we try to get at life, condense it, turn it over in our hands, searching for some sense to our chance-ridden and often absurd shlep and dash towards death. Of life we know this: sometimes the best person wins, sometimes the cad. Or the rogue. There must be a phrase in every language for “didn’t see that one coming,” or “so, its come to this…” If caprice didn’t in some way underwrite our games, no one would play, because no one would believe them. The three R’s, reason, reliability, and rectitude, are never interesting. Far more important to us is verisimilitude. Hence the jokers, the handicaps, the dice. The Nobel Prize accrues meaning precisely because of the Committee’s hundred and ten year old reputation for capriciousness. Thomas Mann’s award perplexes no one. That Robert Musil did not win throws Mann’s win into sharp relief. Why honor the one vision of the decline of pre-World Wars Europe and not the other? Like the whims of Yahweh, it’s the very arbitrariness of how the honors fall that lends the Nobel its fascinating weight, and keeps our mouths agape.
Last month Anthony Tomasini, music critic for the New York Times, ran a series of articles about the great composers, culminating in his list of the top ten composers of all time. It was a ludicrous enterprise, as even he admitted. Not really worth anything with regards to furthering the causes of the chosen. Bach needs no defenders. But for weeks now my partner, Sam, has been spitting like a goose because Haydn didn’t make the cut. “How could he not include Haydn? He only invented every musical form we recognize!” For me, his list showed epochism – no one before Bach, no Machaut or Josquin de Prez. And so, in our household at least, Tomasini’s list accomplished its purpose. It riled us, got us thinking about our own lists, compelled us to formulate clearly what is important to us, what our values are, and thereby to know ourselves a little better. The Nobel Prize serves the same purpose. What good would it do if it only ever honored the unarguables and didn’t occasionally get our goats and make us talk to each other? If Pearl Buck was not a laureate, we would have to make her one.