• Category Archives Nobel Prize for Literature
  • In Memoriam: Seamus Heaney — Ally of Our Sympathetic Natures

    I first heard Seamus Heaney’s name as an undergraduate in a seminar on Norse Mythology. The class had nothing to do with him, but the visiting professor, a rosy-cheeked, crinkly-eyed British poet and translator named Kevin Crossley-Holland, clearly wanted it to have something to do with him, if only for a moment. I have no memory of what he said about him, except that he was one of the foremost poets writing in English, what poem he referenced, except that he intoned its lines with an artful facsimile of naturalness, or in what context he mentioned him, except that it had nothing to do with Heaney’s and Ireland’s importance to one another.

    imageA few years later, when I saw Heaney’s name and picture towards the bottom of the front page of the paper and read that he’d won the Nobel Prize, I remembered again that seminar. I remembered that for my final presentation I managed, much to the puzzlement of my classmates and the evident bemusement of Crossley-Holland, to work in a bit of the fourth movement of Sibelius’s Second Symphony because for me it evoked something of Wotan, but really because, like Crossley-Holland’s bringing Heaney to bare on that class, I wanted the music to be there, and niceties such as Sibelius’s own affinity for Finnish mythology as opposed to Norse counted for nothing.

    As I stood at the kitchen counter reading the column announcing Heaney’s win, I remember feeling keen that he was a poet. As much as I loved poetry, I loved loving poetry even more. I always wanted to be a poet. By that I mean that in high school I wanted to be Percy Bysshe Shelley, a desire which, with adolescent urgency, I soon transferred onto T. S. Eliot. The thought of writing something as happily sonorous as “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo”, was a reason to pull myself out of bed in the morning. Who cared what it meant. In college I fell head over heals for Auden –his poetry, certainly, but more Auden himself, or rather the Auden I constructed out of bits of myself, my insecurities, my fantasies of meriting a face like that (without, let it be understood, having to bare the face itself); I fetishized what I imagined to be his urbane relationship with his world, his sexuality, his fellows, his apparent capacity to hold in balance being at once supremely disabused and wide open, someone capable of a quatrain like “How should we like it were stars to burn/ With a passion for us we could not return?/ If equal affection cannot be,/ Let the more loving one be me.” Neruda, too, I used to gild my mirror on the wall. What better than to be a person who loved Pablo Neruda? How different, I imagined, my life would be had I the internal reserves to say “I want/ To do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.” Heaney, at the time of his Nobel, I had not yet read, so I had no idea how he would fit into my accrual of sensibility. But I remembered Crossley-Holland’s reverence and thought him a good bet.

    imageWhen I finally began to read him, I quickly realized he would not yield so easily to any narcissistic projects. I came across stanzas like this one:

    Tonight, a first movement, a pulse,
    As if the rain in a bogland gathered head
    To slip and flood: a bog-burst,
    A gash breaking open the ferny bed.
    Your back is a firm line of Eastern coast
    And arms and legs are thrown
    Beyond your gradual hills. I caress
    The heaving province where our past has grown.
    I am the tall kingdom over your shoulder
    That you would neither cajole nor ignore.
    Conquest is a lie. I grow older
    Conceding your half-independent shore
    Within whose borders now my legacy
    Culminates inexorably.

    (from “Act of Union”)

    None of my previous poetic loves could give me a leg up on this. Its not a “difficult” poem per se. That Britain and Ireland are two land masses interfering erotically with one another is not hard to deduce. And with words like “pulse”, “flood”, “gash”, “ferny bed”, “hills”, “caress”, “culminates”, you would think, wouldn’t you, that some erogenous brain center would get at least a synaptic tweak. But the sex here is cold, Neruda on ice. In any case, it wasn’t really the means of his poetry that eluded me. It was the ends. What was Heaney saying by saying what he was saying?

    In retrospect, the reason for my block was twofold: First, unlike the poetry I had typically found simpatico, which tended to be romantic, even in Auden at his crustiest, Heaney made no appealing, romantic gestures like “His soul stretched tight across the skies/That fade behind a city block”. No self-involved gasps like “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:/ What if my leaves are falling like its own?” Instead we get “Conquest is a lie. I grow older/ Conceding your half-independent shore/ Within whose borders now my legacy/ Culminates inexorably”. Whatever it means, it’s not very nice.

    My second block stemmed from a loose and grossly under-informed grasp of modern Irish history. I knew that Ireland was one of the geopolitical Earth’s hot spots, a place where Catholics and Protestants vigorously eschewed Christian behavior with one another, and that the strife was between the North and South. But this is all I could have said. I didn’t actually know which faction was in the North and which South. I didn’t get it that for some the fight was about religious hatred and others political justice, or that masked members of the IRA pulled people from buses for massacre, or that Protestant loyalists blew up civilians in Belfast pubs, or that Britain had responded with violence to the nationalist’s demands for basic civil rights. I had no head for the why of the conflict or its duration. Finally, and most compromisingly, I did not even know to entertain the question, let alone approach comprehension, what it really meant to an Irishman, of whatever religious stripe, to be Irish.

    imageToday I know a little more about the tragedy of modern Ireland, and I am aware of the indelible thumbprint left by the Irish on Western culture. This makes me a better reader of Heaney’s poetry, but it’s not why I now love him. I love him because he invites me to adopt a more vulnerable way of meeting the world. I have always been hungry to know what, on Earth, is going on, only in those flushed post grad years I conceived this as a largely self-referential task, realizing my “gifts”, deepening my skills, learning the star chart of my sensuality. Heaney’s poetry invites me to use all that as a starting point from which to move into a much broader landscape, wilder, often hostile, always awash in grandeur. When he writes “Tonight, a first movement, a pulse,” I need no context, I know what that is, and not only through concupiscence. It’s that thing we all feel in our bodies when we find ourselves alone in our rooms at night and realize the world has waxed strange. By the time I arrive at “A gash breaking open the ferny bed” he’s tumbled me into a new and violent place, a place where I, terrifyingly, may not signify at all, like when, as a child, I first became aware of the erotic life of my parents. In the very next lines, “Your back is a firm line of Eastern coast/ And arms and legs are thrown/ Beyond your gradual hills,” I’ve been brought to crouch behind a wall, or a shrub, from where I am to witness something grave and large and against which all my supposed gifts and skills will count for nought. What, after all, is possible where implacable kingdoms loom tall over shoulders? That this is England and Ireland is only intellectually significant as the emotion has made a “bog-burst” through cartographic constraints. By the last two words of the stanza, “Culminates inexorably,” all my narcissistic projects have splintered and fallen in the face of what, on Earth, is really going on.

    Heaney is a great poet because he invites his readers into this, at best, difficult world, but doesn’t abandon them to it. However fraught the place to which he carries us, we are carried still, held in the arms of his artifice. The language of a Heaney poem is clear and high and beautiful and deeply moral, even when speaking of the slashed throat of a third century man discovered preserved in a peat bog:

    imageThe head lifts,
    the chin a visor
    raised above the vent
    of his slashed throat

    that has tanned and toughened.
    The cured wound
    opens inwards to a dark
    elderberry place.

    Who will say ‘corpse’
    to his vivid cast?
    Who will say ‘body’
    to his opaque repose?

    (from “Grauballe Man”)


    In his remarkable Nobel lecture, he speaks to this very quality of vulnerability chaperoned by beauty in all “necessary poetry”, poetry whose raison d’être is “to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic reality of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed”. By these lights, necessary poetry allies itself with that in me which once longed to take on the guise of Auden, and which needed the Sibelius Second to be about Woton because it needed Sibelius, period. These are signal flares from my sympathetic nature. Poetry is the large, warm hand that guides this nature into the great and difficult world from which it must, at last, draw sustenance.

    As I write this, I can’t shake the feeling that Shelly, Eliot, Auden and Neruda are staring at me from whatever heaven they have found, and biting their tongues. “Is that not what we all were about?” they say. Seamus Heaney, newest among them, says gently, “Let him rant.”

    Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

  • From Powell’s, Back Into the World


    Portland from the Burnside BridgePortland. Walking west across the Burnside Bridge at dusk can bring you to your senses. Your legs tighten against the wind of passing cars and the lewd buzz of a motorbike fleet. Your vision grows fat on the baroque skyline glowing before you. Unlike other cities whose profiles front the sky, Portland’s is cradled by wooded hills to the southwest, rendering it, against its own extroversion, intimate, offered. You can’t refuse. Momentarily glutted, you look to your right for relief from the Willamette, and see in the waning light the illuminated windows of the light rail rolling through the trusses of the North Steel Bridge, and your memory skirts the peripheries of Bladerunner, Metropolis, Miyazaki. On the descent, you look over the guard into a waterside park deep in the city’s shadow, where youth trade joints and important thoughts. As you leave the bridge, you meet a contingent of the homeless gathered about the walls of the Portland Rescue Mission. A drunk man in pajama bottoms wends between parked cars, barking. At the base of a sidewalk tree you catch a whiff, not of urine, of life for once not your own.

    The North Steele BridgeIf you read books and know Portland, you know where this is heading. Ten blocks up from the bridge a large unprepossessing sign presides over the intersection –“Powell’s”. Because you are, at base, a romantic, you were half expecting this famous million-volume bookstore to be housed in something a bit lovelier than this particular building, this industrial rectangle with less architectural romance than a laundromat. Yet as you approach, as you take in the glass storefront, you feel expanded, as at that first sight of the ocean which had countered and held your sense of loss.


    I went to the Oregon Coast to see wave-bashed basalt, miles of sand, lighthouses, and to feel my tiny life threaded back into the large and varied world. Now I was in Portland, at Powell’s, looking for books, those cultural artifacts which more than any others address that very threading.

    Of the hundreds of books that beguiled from the kilometers of shelves, I came away with just six, an act of will helped along by the knowledge that whatever I bought had to fit in my carry on. Looking at this little pile now, I’m bemused. If not entirely arcane, its certainly idiosyncratic:

    Powell's BooksOMEROS (Derek Walcott)     Once again I was holding this book and looking at Walcott’s cover art, that yellow skiff scudding green surf, carrying four figures under a stormy sky. The skiff rides from right to left. In film theory, when a camera pans from right to left, the effect is of moving back in time, towards memory. I’ve always felt Walcott’s skiff is carrying its people home rather than to unknown shores. This is the aim of the epic as a form, to carry a culture across its own history back to itself. I have a recording of Walcott reciting a passage near its end: “I sang of quiet Achilles, Afolabe’s son,/ who never ascended in an elevator,/ who had no passport, since the horizon needs none…” Time to finally own a copy. A first edition, no less.

    FREDDY NEPTUNE (Les Murray)     A few years back, Dan Chiasson, writing for the New Yorker, described Australian poet Les Murray as “routinely mentioned among the three or four leading English-language poets.” In whose routine? Apparently Walcott and Heaney had company about whom I knew nothing. I found and read a couple of volumes and discovered a cranky, captivating voice, brilliantly subversive, even of its own heartbreak. Chiasson wrote that Murray’s 1998 verse novel, Fredy Neptune, about a German-Australian sailor who, during the First World War, witnesses something so horrific it causes him to lose all sense of feeling in his body, has “little competition…for the claim to being the best verse novel of our time.” I have never seen it in a bookstore, so when I saw it at Powell’s my impulse was to honor it for being there by buying it.

    THE END OF THE AFFAIR (Graham Greene)     When I asked my friend Anna Pendleton what her favorite book was, without a moment’s hesitation she said The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene. “I love that book!” were she a gusher, she would have gushed. Anna is young, fiercely bright, lovely in all ways, a middle school English teacher, and a self-proclaimed introvert who nevertheless projects terrific energy. She will, I suspect, be single for a much shorter time than she imagines, though she will probably always be mildly chagrined by whomever she finds sitting intimately across from her. When I saw her literary love at Powell’s I opened it and began to read:

    A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who – when he has been seriously noted at all – has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact own my will to choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?

    Oh Anna, I thought, you like this? Are there no men like you?

    THE LOVED AND THE UNLOVED (Francois Mauriac)     After Patrick White, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and William Faulkner, François Mauriac may be my favorite novelist on the Nobel roster. I say “may be” because on any given day he would be elbowing in somewhere between Saul Bellow, Thomas Mann, and José Saramago. Like Patrick White, Mauriac is not talked about much these days. I suspect it is because, as a flinty and ardent Catholic, the existentialists sautéed his reputation and ate it with a glass of Pinot. Too bad for those who read only for confirmation of the rightness of twentieth century malaise. Mauriac’s Catholic malaise, démodé though it is, can attain gruesome heights which leave even malaisophiles gasping for air. I had not heard of this book, a late one in his oeuvre.

    THE TROLLEY (Claude Simon)     I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of novels I’ve begun and failed to finish. Conducting Bodies, by Claude Simon is one. It was the spoils of one of my undergrad expeditions into the library stacks. Willing I was, but simply not prepared for the nouveau roman’s daunting repudiations. Of plot, for example, and a meaningful sense of time. I’m a different reader now, and with Simon’s centenary coming up in October, it seems time give him another go. This book was his last, written at the age of 88.

    TWO LEGENDS: OEDIPUS AND THESEUS (André Gide)     I love modern versions of classic literature. Milosz’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”, for example, is one of my favorite poems. A few years back I wrote what I believed to be a brilliant poem on the subject of Theseus. I imagined him in old age, living in a ratty urban apartment, and returning to Hades to liberate Persephone who he and his friend Pirithous had once tried, and catastrophically failed, to abduct. The pathos I evoked, the intellectual rigor and linguistic flights, the adroit iambic pentameter – move over Derek! When I re-read it last year I was appalled by its pompous rigidity. The language certainly took flight –from clarity at every opportunity. I had come across this late work by André Gide in Santa Fe awhile back, and failed to buy it. I wanted to learn; no author’s pen runs more fleetly over maters of greater moral import.


    Like a one-night stand who in the morning you realize you’d actually like to get to know, I brought my purchases from the night before to a coffee shop south of the Burnside Bridge on the east side of the river to have a look at them in sober daylight. The Frenchies had won, I saw, and a point each for the Brits, the Aussies, and the Caribbean expats. Two were poets, four novelists. One had lived openly gay. Four had won a Nobel Prize, one probably should have, one still might. I felt happy. I knew that Sam, whom I had loved and lost, and whom I was missing terribly, would never have let me leave Portland without a stack of books just like this one.

    Powell's purchases


  • THE REPUBLIC OF WINE: Mo Yan’s Cultural Exhibition

    mo-yan-478x318Everyone wants a Nobel Prize. Chilean poet Nicanor Parra feels he should get the “Nobel Prize for Reading”. How many aspiring writers feel they have the “Nobel Prize for Potential” in the bag? Nobel dreams arise from feelings of being unseen. One goggles out of one’s cranium at the wider world and sees the attention of those whose attention seems to matter being directed elsewhere, towards others, and one feels cut adrift, less than fully real, even, perhaps, mortally threatened. What people are really wanting when they want a Nobel Prize is to be seen and validated. It’s part of the human legacy to feel, somewhere along the line, unappreciated, misunderstood, not fully recognized. But for some, for whatever reason, the feeling carries an especially strong charge, giving rise to the sense that only something “ultimate” can break it. Winning a Nobel Prize means being seen, and validated, ultimately.

    What goes for individuals can also go for whole cultures. Last October, The People’s Republic of China scored, if not its first Nobel Prize, then the first it can make use of in its rambunctious, somewhat hysterical pursuit of validation. Novelist Mo Yan’s win means that China can now punch the air over its invitation onto the cultural playing field. The Western cultural playing field, that is. The power it currently holds is based, in part, on their choice to match or surpass the shots the West had called. “About time, a Nobel,” said the regime.

    To prolong the afterglow, the Chinese government has invested the equivalent of 110 million dollars to transform Mo’s hometown, the village of Ping’an, a backwater of eight hundred souls in the province of Shandong, into a theme park, the “Mo Yan Culture Experience Zone”. In a nod to Mo Yan’s famous novel Red Sorghum, the government has also mandated the cultivation, “by real peasants”, of 1,600 acres of sorghum, a now useless crop that hasn’t been planted in decades. I strain to imagine an equivalent response anywhere. Imagine the United States congress pushing through a bill to create a William Faulkner theme park in rural Mississippi, exhibiting the mentally impaired, incestuously conceived, and the suicidal, skulking about movie set mansions, with matches, while a near-by cotton field is tended by real free blacks.

    Because his fiction often takes on social ills and petty government corruption, many readers see Mo Yan as a gadfly biting the ears of the regime. He has, himself, made much of being a critic of the system “from within the system.” This could explain why his books sing with something of the system’s nasality. With his sprawling historical revisions, incorporation of fantastical elements, and adolescent good-naturedness about sex and violence, he has become an exponent of a what appears to be a dominant strain of the modern Chinese aesthetic sensibility. It is, in essence, a romantic sensibility, rife with exceptionalism and teleological imperative, which hog-ties historical fact against the demands of operatic myth making. As in Romanticism’s more bombastic manifestations, it has little to do with self-understanding and much to do with theatrical projection. For China, the audience for this theater is the rest of the world, with box seats for the First World West. Its stage-managed ploy to be seen and validated by this audience has often resulted in an aggressive tawdriness. Witness the teenaged neon-lit skylines of their millennia-old metropolises. Witness the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a veritable tribal orgasm of overweening muchness. The Three Gorges Dam, whatever its state-proclaimed justification, is, first and foremost, an expression of defiant gigantism, more exhibit than solution. If Mo Yan sometimes criticizes this China, he does so in a prose which this China understands. Now, his books, too, along with his very celebrity, have become exhibits.

    9781611457292_p1_v2_s600In Mo Yan’s 1992 novel, The Republic of Wine, the central government has dispatched special investigator Ding Gao’er to a district called “Liquorland” where he is charged with getting to the bottom of rumors about a decadent culinary practice involving the braising of human baby boys in red sauce. Upon arrival, he is invited to a banquet in his honor, where, after being forced by cultural mores to drink himself blind, he is served what appears to be the dish in question. He is appropriately horrified. The officials hosting the banquet try to calm him, explaining how valuable this dish has been to the region.

    ‘This is a famous dish in these parts… It’s called Stork Delivering a Son. We serve it to visiting dignitaries. It’s a dish they won’t forget for as long as they live, one that has drawn nothing but praise. We’ve earned a lot of convertible currency for the nation by serving it to our most honored guests.’ (75)

    Ding is unpersuaded. In drunken protest, he pulls out his gun and shoots the head off this “incredibly fragrant little boy.”

    The drive for caché with the West is even more explicit in a scene depicting a cooking lesson given by a master chef to a group of anxious culinary students. She tells them,

    ‘As long as you can command the skill of cooking meat boys you’ll never have to worry about a thing, no matter where you go. Don’t you all want to go abroad? So long as you can handle this superior dish, it’s as good as holding a permanent visa in your hand. You can conquer the foreigners, be they Yanks, Krauts, or whatever.” (224)

    The comment is slapdash; nowhere else in the novel is it suggested that outside interest has made a local instance of cannibalism exportable. But Mo is being colorful, and a tidy argument would mute his vivid palette.

    Ding Gao’er is less a character than a type, recognizable from earliest films noir: the washed-up randy detective, full of posture, and pitiful. The target of his investigation is a local party leader named Diamond Jin, whose godlike charisma goofily stems from his ability to hold his liquor by the apparent swimming pool-full. Such gifts obtain in Liquorland. Ding gets into a made-to-order mess by falling for Diamond’s chip-shouldering, truck-driving girlfriend, who essentially rapes him for blackmail. The final showdown – not with Diamond Jin, but with the girlfriend, as by the end of his story he has completely abandoned the investigation for which he was hired – occurs in a popular watering hole called the Yichi Tavern, owned by a toad-like dwarf named Yu Yichi, able to walk on ceilings, and whose goal, well within sight, is to sleep with every beautiful girl in Liquorland. By the time Ding’s story ends, at the bottom of an open-air privy, where, in retrospect, it had been heading all along, he has become the novel’s only confirmed murderer.

    mo-yan02I refer to Ding Gao’er’s story to distinguish it from the two other narrative lines of the novel. The second takes the form of an epistolary exchange between a famous novelist named Mo Yan, who is writing a book fortuitously called The Republic of Wine, and an aspiring young writer named Li Yidou. Mo Yan bears a striking resemblance to the author of the book in hand: overweight, a Kung fu novel aficionado, with a novel called Red Sorghum already under his belt, which – he’s understandably proud of this – was made into a successful movie by the famous director, Zhang Yimou. He is demure about his reputation: “I have no grounding in literary theory and hardly any ability to appreciate art,” he writes. “Any song and dance from me would be pointless.”

    Li Yidou lives in Liquorville, where he writes his stories while studying for his Ph.D. in – can you guess? – “liquor studies.” Mo Yan is suitably impressed. “I envy you more than is probably good for me,” he writes.

    If I were a doctor of liquor studies, I doubt I’d waste my time writing novels. In China, which reeks of liquor, can there be any endeavor with greater promise or a brighter future than the study of liquor, any field that bestows more abundant benefits? In the past, it was said that ‘in books there are castles of gold, in books there are casks of grain, in books there are beautiful women.’ But the almanacs of old had their shortcomings, and the word ‘liquor’ would have worked better than ‘books.’

    Despite such coyness, he does offer advice, which mostly involves complimenting the idealistic young man on his prodigious imagination, and suggesting ways to make the stories attractive to a state-sponsored literary rag called Citizen’s Literature.

    The stories themselves comprise the third narrative line of the novel. The first few stories address the same nasty business of the meat boys under investigation by Mo Yan’s Ding Gao’er. Among Li Yidou’s recurring characters is a precocious toddler who stages an escape among his fellow toddlers being held in waiting at the culinary institute. In other stories, the same figure morphs into an adolescent boy with scales instead of skin, a kind of trickster making trouble for the government officials. One story recounts how Li’s father-in-law, a respected professor at the Brewer’s college, leaves behind civilization to research the phenomenon of “ape liquor”, wine made by great apes who throw fruit into a natural stone cistern where it ferments, reputed to be the finest liquor in the world. He shares with Mo Yan the character Yu Yichi, the dwarf who owns the famous Liquorville tavern where Ding Gao’er makes his final descent. In keeping with the novel’s gustatory theme, one of the dishes he describes being served at the tavern consists of the genitalia of a male and a female donkey arranged just so on a plate and given the appellation, “Dragon and Phoenix Lucky Together”. The best of Li’s stories and the best writing in the book, is about his mother-in-law, with whom he is erotically fixated, who, in her youth, accompanied her father and uncles to remote caves by the ocean where they harvested, at tremendous, even tragic, personal risk, the swallow’s nests so in demand by China’s most expensive restaurants.

    The Republic of Wine feels chaotic. Just what Mo Yan hopes his readers will pull from the chaos seems unclear. His rather broad-stroke metaphor – local government officials sanctioning eating the male children of their own people – is clearly intended to be subversive. That this novel was initially refused publication in China is not surprising. But neither is it surprising that, after the release of a Taiwanese edition, its attributes, we’ll say – I hesitate calling them merits – were reconsidered. The novel, it turns out, actually works in The Party’s favor: In Mo Yan’s fictional country, corruption lies, not in Beijing, with a government known for violent suppression of the populous (the Tiananmen Square Protests had occurred just three years earlier) but in the outposts, where local party leaders surreptitiously practice a gruesome caricature of capitalistic hedonism. While seeming to decry florid abuses of power, it, in fact, leaves China’s central government unscathed and heart of the system remains pure. Approving such a work looks good for the regime, and Mo Yan gets to play both sides. Or so it seems.

    One thing I can say unequivocally after reading this novel is that I find the Nobel Committee’s reference to Garcia Marquez in their citation incredible: Lots of writers include fantastical elements in their novels who neither merit nor require a Garcia Marquez pin. In the case of Mo Yan, sentence by sensibility, there is no less apt a comparison. The Colombian master is an infinitely more careful, more painstaking, writer. His fantasy all signifies, while Mo’s frequently seems gratuitous, as if he thought of it thirty seconds before writing it. As with his use of sex and violence, the flights of fancy, what the Nobel citation calls “hallucinatory realism”, seem included only to raise the decibel level, and a kind of puerile hysteria, like a room full of second graders doing the underpants dance. I am surprised at The Committee’s superficial reading, of both authors.

    Equally incredible is The Washington Post’s endorsement of this novel, invoking Gorky and Solzhenitsyn. In an article called a “The Diseased Language of Mo Yan”, which appeared in The Kenyon Review, Anna Sun, a professor of Sociology and Asian Studies at Kenyon, contrasts Mo Yan with the greatest writers who have tackled the harshest social ills, suggesting that Mo lacks “aesthetic conviction.” She writes, “The effect of Mo Yan’s work is not illumination through skilled and controlled exploitation, but disorientation and frustration due to his lack of coherent aesthetic consideration. There is no light shining on the chaotic reality of Mo Yan’s hallucinatory world.” She goes after the writing itself, demonstrating how it fails to rise above “Mao-ti”, or “Mao-speak”‘ a language which survived the Cultural Revolution, when the state forced literature to break with its long literary heritage.

    Open any page, and one is treated to a jumble of words that juxtaposes rural vernacular, clichéd socialist rhetoric, and literary affectation. It is broken, profane, appalling, and artificial; it is shockingly banal. The language of Mo Yan is repetitive, predictable, coarse, and mostly devoid of aesthetic value. The English translations of Mo Yan’s novels, especially by the excellent Howard Goldblatt, are in fact superior to the original in their aesthetic unity and sureness. The blurb for The Republic of Wine from Washington Post says: “Goldblatt’s translation renders Mo Yan’s shimmering poetry and brutal realism as work akin to that of Gorky and Solzhenitsyn.” But in fact, only the “brutal realism” is Mo Yan’s; the “shimmering poetry” comes from a brilliant translator’s work.

    Even with Goldblatt’s heroic efforts, I, for one, experienced more shuddering than shimmering, at bald clichés and flat, unlayered prose.

    Calling Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize “a catastrophe”, will likely prove one of Herta Müller’s most enduring public statements. The Swedish Academy’s decision to honor a writer who has refused to support dissident writers, and who has publicly attested to the usefulness of censorship, is, to her, an abomination. Yet, Mo Yan himself insists that his win is “a literature victory, not a political victory.” Echoing his position, the Nobel Committee had its perennial protestation, about the non-political, purely literary focus of the award all primed and ready to spray over the arguments of the expected detractors. Far more expert readers than me have persuasively argued the impossibility of such a clear separation of art from ideology, and it seems to me that Mo Yan would do well to invite the political foment, if only to distract readers from his actual writing.

    Chinese writer Mo Yan laughs as he holds a cigarette during the International Strindberg Conference in BeijingStill, if read as a cultural artifact, The Republic of Wine holds a certain fascination. And I’m ready and willing to concede that my grimaced reading may, to some extent, be a cultural mis-reading. Clearly, his wild popularity in China avers that he has seen something compelling about China’s moment, and validated the experience of its people, or some important and unavoidable aspect of it. And who am I to say the favor shouldn’t be returned. While I find his political choices disturbing, to say the least, I cannot join those who cry that Stockholm should, for that reason alone, disinvite him from its table. If the artistry holds up, nothing more need be said. To me, it doesn’t. But then, he’s speaking for a country that would make a theme park out of his celebrity.





    On-line references (Each of these, especially the second and third, are worth reading):




  • Test Your Nobel Knowledge: A Mystery Passage in a Time of Advent

    He needs to be accompanied when addressing the short flight of stairs up to the bedroom or down to the main level, but he manages them without assistance. The ability to do so was one of the criteria for discharge. Sam is home. He is not able to do much yet, but, after more than a month in the hospital, and another full month in rehab, this not much he can now do at home. And there is so much that he wants to do. It is the season of Advent. Waiting.

    I had intended to tell you about reading Nadirs. In my last post I shared some of the feeling of amazement I experienced when my friend Viet presented me with an autographed copy of this book. This time I wanted to tell you about the book itself, about Herta Müller’s dark vision put forth in these almost gruesomely denuded – I lack, at the moment, a better term – stories. I even had the following opener all worked out: “Be careful, when you pick up a copy of Nadirs and start to read, that you don’t crack a tooth.” But life at our house has only just scrabbled to the far side of a rather deep nadir of its own, and still strains against a new rhythm relentlessly beaten out by bare physical need: gauze, urinal, cane, medicines, pill crusher, syringe, and learning to fall asleep to the sound of a feeding tube pump – and life rebels, wanting vantage. Müller’s thin, grim first volume, as good as it is, is not for now. Not yet.

    While Sam was away, I consoled myself by reorganizing the portion of our personal library that lives in our room. So that yesterday, while getting dressed, my eye fell on… I’m not going to tell you what my eye fell on, at least not yet, except to say that it is one of the great reading experiences I know. And I thought how no one else I know has had it. And it occurred to me that it was just what the times require, and that I haven’t posted a Nobel mystery passage in a very long time.

    Those of you who were following this blog last year will remember how this works: First, read the passage below, taken from the novel’s first chapter. Then turn yourself loose. Share your thoughts. What do you hear? How does it strike you? Any guesses what country the author is from? Does it trigger any memories? Does it remind you of anything else you’ve read? Does it make you curious, or does it repel? Do you have a guess as to who the author is? Think you might know the title? Have you, by chance, read the book? Right answers are far less fun than wild speculation and surmises, why you might make a certain guess more interesting than the guess itself. Please ask for clues.

    And speaking of clues, here is one: A careful ear will hear that this writing belongs to the first half of the Nobel Prize’s one hundred and twelve year history rather than the second. Best to lose, for the moment, whatever imagined need you might have for post-modernist irony.

    In the bed by his mother’s side the child was stirring again. An unknown sorrow had risen from the depths of his being. He stiffened himself against her. He twisted his body, clenched his fists, and knitted his brows. His suffering increased steadily, quietly, certain of its strength. He knew not what it was, nor whence it came. It appeared immense,— infinite, and he began to cry lamentably. His mother caressed him with her gentle hands. Already his suffering was less acute. But he went on weeping, for he felt it near, still inside himself. A man who suffers can lesson his anguish by knowing whence it comes. By thought he can locate it in a certain portion of his body which can be cured, or, if necessary, torn away. He fixes the bounds of it, and separates it from himself. A child has no such illusive resource. His first encounter with suffering is more tragic and more true. Like his own being, it seems infinite. He feels that it is seated in his bosom, housed in his heart, and is mistress of his flesh. And it is so. It will not leave his body until it has eaten it away.

    His mother hugs him to her, murmuring: “It is done— it is done! Don’t cry, my little Jesus, my little goldfish….” But his intermittent outcry continues. It is as though this wretched, unformed, and unconscious mass had a presentiment of a whole life of sorrow awaiting him, and nothing can appease him….

    The bells of St. Martin rang out in the night. Their voices are solemn and slow. In the damp air they come like footsteps on moss. The child became silent in the middle of a sob. The marvelous music, like a flood of milk, surged sweetly through him. The night was lit up; the air was moist and tender. His sorrow disappeared, his heart began to laugh, and he slid into his dreams with a sigh of abandonment.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Yes, you.

  • The 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature: Dreaming Up a Winner

    I had the strangest dream last night: The Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, and the winner for 2012 was…Romy Schneider. Lets hear it for 1960’s Euro-glam! You might easily wonder how much time I have spent obsessing about Frau Schneider that her name would elbow through to the fore of my dreadfully overstuffed unconscious. Absolutely none. I assure you. In fact, I had to Wiki her just to remind myself what films I’ve seen her in. While in her too-short life the Austrian-born bombshell made trouble for stiff, bland Tom Tyron in Otto Preminger’s  The Cardinal, played Empress Elizabeth of Austria in Lucchino Visconti’s lugubrious Ludwig, and carried on a very public affair with Alain Delon, produce a great work of literature she did not. I could be persuaded that she had an active postcard life, but, beyond that, it is hard to even imagine her in the act of writing. But, in my dream, she had written at least one great novel, praised for its “pervasive melancholy and diaphanous language”. From what neural trash-bin of cliches did I pull this? My first thought upon waking: It should have gone to Fanny Ardant. With her Truffaut background and ability to take Cathrine Deneuve to the floor, she’d have no time for such gauzy tosh. My second thought was a rueful wish that Schneider had actually produced this reputed lachrymose masterpiece. I’d be curious to read it. Though it would, perhaps, be a toss up between that and Simone Signoret’s memoir, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be.

    Romy Schneider – Surprise winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

    Thankfully, the choice for the Nobel is not up to my brain stem. It is, rather, up to the brain stems of the five men and women appointed by the Swedish Academy whose job it is each year to dream up a winner. If this sounds irreverent to that illustrious coterie of intellectual curators, consider neuroscience. Because of the work of scientists, who themselves have won Nobels, we know that to make so-called “rational” decisions, our brains must enlist  their more antiquated components, those areas in charge of our emotions, desires and anxieties, our knee-jerk reactions, all that was once subsumed by the Freudian id. The separation of reason from un-reason, they tell us, is pure illusion. In a normally functioning brain, the cortex weighs options, puts forth its arguments, assembles its narratives, but at the moment of choice, something primal, emotional, reptilian, must be satisfied. What we decide to do with our money, who we decide to sit next to on the bus, or vote for, or flirt with, or flee, who, what, how, and where we decide to worship, or read, unless we draw on the lizardish parts of our brains –  those parts connected to our dreams – we are left in a purgatory of indecision.

    When the announcement comes, the head secretary will  issue a pithy statement, summarizing the committee’s rationale. The new laureate may “Give voice to an experience as yet un-heard on the World stage”, or use language to “limn the boundaries of the sayable.” But, in his effort to make their choice make sense to us, he won’t tell us the half of what went into it. To wit, what lights their little Nordic fires.

    Whatever conversations I might have with my analyst about my “Romy Schneider wins the Nobel Prize” dream, the best part of it is the sublime joke of it, that is, its unpremeditated murder of expectation. Whether we grouse or whoop, we all secretly love it when this happens. Our brain stems light up, we become alert, our bodies vibrate. My waking brain will forever keep Romy Schneider from her Nobel Prize. But there is something in the names of each of the men and women I do place on my personal list of contenders that lights the same spark of delight I had upon waking this morning, and realizing that something rather fabulous had happened.

    So, in the next few weeks, think kind thoughts for the Swedish five, as they lay their heads down each night on their impeccably laundered pillows, that their brain stems send them wild dreams, and that when they wake to hold their conclave, they remember the delight.


    My Personal Long List:

    In the mean time, here is my long list for this year. Sometime before the big announcement, I’ll share my short list. Read through it. If there is someone I’ve named at whom your own limbic system shudders, by all means say so. Likewise if you are in agreement about any of these writers, let me know. But, best of all, if there is someone absent from this list who you feel must be included, don’t remain selfishly silent. Tell us who you would dream up as a winner.


    1.   Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)

    2.   Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portugal)

    3.   Margaret Atwood (Canada)

    4.   Bei Dao (China)

    5.   Juan Goytisolo (Spain)

    6.   Ismail Kadare  (Albania)

    7.   György Konrad (Hungary)

    8.   László Krasznahorkai (Hungary)

    9.   Milan Kundera (Czech Republic/ France)

    10.  Cormac McCarthy (United States)

    11.  Alice Munro (Canada)

    12.  Les Murray (Australia)

    13.  Cees Nooteboom (Netherlands)

    14.  Amos Oz (Israel)

    15.  Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Russia)

    16.  Philip Roth (United States)

    17.  Salman Rushdie (Great Britain)

    18.  Tom Stoppard (Great Britian)

    19.  William Trevor (Ireland)

    20.  Michel Tournier (France)