SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH – A BOLD CHOICE FOR THE NOBEL…OR IS IT?
Nobel laureates Theodor Mommsen, Rudolph Eucken, Henri Bergson, Bertrand Russell, and Winston Churchill have spent many decades receding from memory. To be sure, they are not altogether lost, a century and some is not long enough in the modern era for total erasure. Churchill’s name we know, albeit for other reasons. Russell’s and Bergson’s have a familiar echo. A few historians whose specialty is ancient Rome know something of Mommsen. Eucken has all but vanished. A dustier collection of books never hid along the nether reaches of the library stacks.
Today the Belorusian writer Svetlana Alexievich joined their ranks, becoming the sixth writer to be awarded the world’s most prestigious literary prize for work that is neither fiction, nor poetry, nor drama. That is to say, nothing of what is almost universally meant by “literature”. One would like to say that her being so honored could blow some of the dust off the other five’s books, renew interest in their achievements. It is not likely. One would also like to say that she will not share there fate, once a similar number of decades have past. This no one can say. What can be said is even within this small group, she is in a minority of one, winning not for history, or philosophy, but for journalism. More an occupation, you would be forgiven for thinking, than a literary pursuit, although many writers have done time as journalists. It seems ever more a thing of the past that an aspiring novelist, following the Hemingway model, would consent to an apprenticeship of investigative journalism to make ends meet during their early careers. So, on a list of eminences such as Peter Nadas, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Philip Roth, and Adam Zagajewski, all potential candidates for the Nobel, it is easy to view Alexievich’s work as déclassé. Admirable, to be sure, even important. But literature?
We should, perhaps, take another look. She is, after all, a writer. Voices from Chernobyl, and Zinky Boys are, in fact, books, and, by all accounts, the quality of the writing they exhibit is high and the formal innovation worthy of note. Further, they are books which shoulder the burden of their gravely difficult content without stumbling. In light of these considerations, perhaps we must confess a bias that begs challenging.
That said, the award of the day really should go to the Nobel committee itself for pulling off a bit of a stunt. They succeeded in being simultaneously progressive and conservative, edgy and drearily establishment. They have, on the one hand, cracked open the whole idea of what constitutes literature – and this is a very good thing as there are many great writers waiting on the margins (In a texting exchange with my friend Nathan yesterday, he asked why there has been such a buzz about a possible win for Svetlana Alexievich while no one is talking about Elena Poneiatowska. As with so many of the authors I hear about from Nathan, I had to google her. I learned that she is a Mexican journalist, winner of the hugely prestigious Cervantes Prize, who has, among her many and lofty credits, a book called La Noche de Tlatelocloco, containing testimonies of the victims of the 1968 student massacre in Mexico City. Thank you, Nathan, as always.)
So. Good for Stockholm. On the other hand, the choice of Alexievich harkens back to the blandest, most conservative interpretation of Alfred Nobel’s poorly worded will which stipulates that the award should go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” In the early years of the award the term “ideal direction” was interpreted to mean something like “edifying”, “uplifting”, “holding to high ideals”. Basically, it was set up to reward literature that was “good for you,” and, by implication, to penalize literature that was, somehow, not. And so, instead of giving the award to Emil Zola, Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Hardy, or James Joyce, each of whose work was considered in one way or another unwholesome, the award went to writers startling in their mediocrity, like Karl Adolph Gjellerup “for his varied and rich poetry, which is inspired by lofty ideals”. Over the decades, the interpretation has shifted in various ways. Sometimes it has been taken to mean consonant to the great humanistic project, thereby enabling the committee to honor such worthy writers as Romain Rolland and Boris Pasternak. But however the committee interprets it, they are saddled with the idea of literature being taken in a particular “direction.” It is a hopelessly moralistic project, which, somehow, the very best writers to be honored – Shaw, Faulkner, Mann, Beckett, Marquez, Eliot, and a handful of others – have transcended. Or, conversely, the Swedish Academy itself has occasionally been able to transcended the limitations of Nobel’s will so as to perceive these writers as great artists, ideal or not.
The committee will claim that “idealism” is no longer a concern, that it is an outmoded criterion, and that only the “best” writing is considered. But listen to Permanent Secretary Sara Danius’s post-announcement comments about Svetlana Alexievich. She says that this remarkable writer has been involved in a project of “mapping the Soviet, and post-Soviet, individual,” of writing down “a history of the human being about whom we really didn’t know that much, at least not in this systematic manner,” of documenting “a history of emotions, a history of the soul, if you wish.” These are all extra-literary concerns, all driven by unassailable “ideals.”
I have not yet read Svetlana Alexievich’s books. I have no reason to doubt that she is a significant writer. She certainly seems to be an important one. Perhaps she is even a great one. I look forward to finding out.