• Category Archives Nobel Prize for Literature
  • And Speaking of Pearl S. Buck…(part 2) with a digression on writers in eclipse

    Before I say more about Pearl Buck, there is something you should know about me: I have a great affection for hidden writers, those whose reputations haunt hard-to-find alleyways on the cultural map, whose nationality or language has kept them in the shadows of the recognized monuments; writers whose books, once considered great achievements, now sit forgotten in spottily frequented library stacks, or are stumbled across in mould-scented used bookstores when traveling in unlikely places.  Such books are heavy with the stories of their own journeys.  Their covers are often dull, the embossing faded, or, if it is a paperback, the cover art is unnervingly earnest with the life of its day, reminding us that books, too, have lifespans.

    Sir Henry Rider Haggard, author of “King Solomon’s Mines”

    The stories of these books, their trajectory from the author’s flaming pen to a collective, embering memory, are as varied as their contents, but, like their contents, follow a few essential gestures. Sometimes a writer’s work gets left in the dust raised as the culture shifts; social attitudes change, blind spots are exposed and corrected and all at once we find that King Solomon’s Mines have yielded, not gold, but Song of Solomon.

    Christopher Marlowe

    Or something new seems to appear under the sun; one writer breaks so spectacularly through a wall that nobody even knew was there that every writer to come after must reassess the whole literary project or risk obsolescence. Waiting for Godot, for example, Lolita, and To The Lighthouse, redefined not just what thoughts or aspects of experience literature could apply itself to, but, in some sense, reshaped what we might, on the average afternoon, think about or experience.  Such tectonic shifts can all at once knock other writers, even excellent ones, off the shelves and into the archives. Wasn’t Shakespeare just Christopher Marlowe’s luck.

    Louis McNeice

    Often its all rather less grandiose than this; one writer simply etiolates in the shadow of another. Think of Louis McNiece, a magnificent poet by any standard.  Too bad for him, and perhaps for us, that he diligently tended his verse while his compatriot, W. H. Auden, was depleting the English-speaking world’s supply of ink.

    Bohumil Hrabal, author of “Closely Watched Trains”

    Sometimes, for whatever reason, a writer doesn’t export well.  The spectacularly gifted Milan Kundera is, at least to Americans,  by orders of magnitude the best known Czech novelist (It is a mystery that he has not yet been ushered into the ranks of the Nobelity). But he himself defers to his equally gifted compatriot, Bohumil Hrabal, who, for all his high regard among those lucky to know his astounding satires, is still a name you must work considerably harder to put yourself in line to hear.  Even having two famous movies made of his novels, Closely Watched Trains and I Served the King of England, has not made his name trip off more tongues.

    John Cowper Powys, author of “A Glastonbury Romance”

    Sometimes the reasons for a writer’s relative obscurity are readily apparent, discoverable in the writing itself. Take for instance the book I am currently reading, A Glastonbury Romance, by John Cowper Powys. It is not by any means an unknown work, but there is no mystery as to why it is rarely encountered. It is a lumbering hippopotamus of a novel, eleven hundred pages of animistic mysticism, insufficiently sublimated sexuality, religious hysteria and spiritual agony, all relaid in the most autumnally swollen prose I can remember.  I happen to love it. Or, I should say, I love reading it. There is a difference. It fascinates me as would the grooming habits of someone who is unequivocally brilliant, but perhaps a bit socially maladjusted.  I am reading it because one of the goddesses in my literary pantheon, Annie Dillard, deems it a work of genius. This it may be, but if so, it is one that could only appeal to a highly circumscribed group of readers.  Which means, of course, there is a measure of ego gratification that attends my personal conquest of its final page.

    Vasily Grossman, author of “Life and Fate”

    In other cases, the reasons for a writer’s obscurity are complex and hard to fathom. We’ve all heard of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, but only now is a tiny reading public becoming aware of the great Vassily Grossman. Sam Sacks, writing for the literary web site, The Quarterly Conversation, suggests that when his masterpiece, Life and Fate, was published in the United States in 1985, twenty-one years after his death, Soviet-era literature in America had already been “spoken for” by the redoubtable Solzhenitsyn, and that, “whereas Grossman was dead, Solzhenitsyn was very much alive, and in fact a celebrity, periodically sallying out from rural Vermont to fulminate against Western decadence or something else that caused excitement. Life and Fate, on the other hand, could do nothing unless it was read, and with 871 pages and over 160 characters, it was and remains a book that’s easier to tip one’s hat to than read.”

    Fredric Mistral

    This subject, the darkening of a book’s life, the leave-taking of certain oeuvres, is one to which I will return frequently in future posts because one of the functions the Nobel Prize has served, especially in its first six or so decades,  has been to provide a kind of living center for retired reputations. Take, for example, Fredric Mistral, who won in 1904. After a lifetime of service, through poetry, to the dwindling Occitan language of Provence, his conservative, bucolic verse has become among the most difficult to find of any body of work represented on the list. If he were not a laureate, there would be almost no occasion to run across even his name.  There must be a few souls in the world who still read him.  Who are they, and where?

    Pearl S. Buck

    And then there are the hundred works of Pearl Sydenstricker Buck.  The publication of The Good Earth in 1931 made her an instant celebrity.  It was her second novel. By 1935, she had published two companion novels to make a trilogy called The House of Earth. It took an uncharacteristically swift three years for the Nobel committee to leap over an American mountain range whose peaks included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodor Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Willa Cather, Wallace Stevens, and the already far more famous William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, to make her the third American, and the fourth woman to receive its imprimatur (Edith Wharton had died, un-honored, the previous year).

    Today it is difficult to fathom why Stockholm would single her out.  The claim has been made that she is the most translated of all American authors.  This may be, but, with the exception of her one famous book, she must also be among the least read. Her reputation’s current repose on the lower slopes of a mountain whose summit it once came within sight of owes to reasons that are both apparent, of the John Cowper Powys variety, and complex. Regarding the latter, I will not torture out a comparison to a writer such as Grossman, except to say that, like him, at least some of her current standing has to do with factors other than her writing. This I will address in my next post.

  • And speaking of Pearl S. Buck…(part 1)

    My mother left me with a box of books recently, refugees from her campaign to downsize her library.  My job was to keep what I wanted and resettle the rest with friends or used book stores.  About half way to the bottom of the box, I pulled out a 1956 edition of a novel by Pearl Buck called Imperial Woman, a fictionalized biography of the last Dowager Empress of China, and found myself having one of those pleasing little memories of the not-quite-nostalgia species.  Of course I will keep this book.  Not that I am likely ever to read it again.  Its the cover that does it for me.  I made it.  I was in seventh grade.  I had chosen this book from my parent’s shelf for an English assignment that involved constructing a slip cover on the back of which I was to write a summary.  For the front, I drew a a rather kitchy picture of a Chinese woman wearing a kind of empire/kimono hybrid, pale blue with a pink floral print and decollete, a fuchsia cape, a gold hair-piece with danglies, and holding on her extended wrist some conflation of a nightingale and a peacock.  As far as I can remember, this image matches no such description of the book’s titular character, but was a product my raging fourteen-year-old sentimentality piqued by Asian – or, at that time, “oriental” – exoticism.  For the summary I all but plagiarized the notes from the record jacket of Evita (My mother had been hired to play violin in the pick-up orchestra for the touring show’s Denver stop, so we’d been listening to this quite a lot.) because there were certain boad-stroke parallels between the two stories about low-class girls who, through looks, wiles, and all-around ruthlessness, ascend to their respective pinnacles of power. It was from this book that I learned what a eunuch is.

    And so I came to Pearl Buck idiosyncratically: this book first, before ninth grade when Miss Grossman assigned the obligatory The Good Earth. Which is to say, I have read fifty percent more of her works than anyone I know.  Anyone, that is, who has read any of her at all.  She must be read still; our local Barns & Noble always carries about three of her novels, and recently I saw on its shelves, bizarrely, The Story Bible, apparently famous for its straightforward, “no-interpretation” retelling of Bible stories.  She is, so the preface to Peony tells me,  the most translated of all American authors.  Really?

    A few years ago a friend’s book group chose to read The Good Earth. This surprised me a bit. I tend to lump The Good Earth together with The Lord of the Flies, perhaps unfairly to both, as a sort of literary vaccine given to resentful sixteen-year-olds in danger of liking books.  (The Old Man and the Sea, and The Pearl might round out this list of books, read hardly at all in later life, but regularly resorted to by red-eyed high school English teachers, not for their depth or their ranking in the echelons of the language, but because they are short enough, and unfussy enough that they might just go down, like peas hidden under pepperoni and cheese.)

    Myself?  I enjoyed reading The Good Earth for wacky Miss Grossman’s class. The second half of the book hovers on the edge of memory in a kind of hazy, jade-lit interior, built to hold Wang Lung’s hard won but nonetheless corrupting wealth.  Indelible, though, is the episode early in the book in which O-lan, his wife, takes a break from her stupefying work in the fields to have a baby.  Was it in the shade of a tree? Out of doors in any case, and alone.  I seem to recall much worrisome discussion of breast milk production.  Such images fasten themselves tick-like to an adolescent imagination.  Idly turning the pages of Imperial Woman, I remember being fascinated by Tzu Hsi’s palaces, her silky ladies in waiting, the fat baby emperor bathed in milk, the oily eunuchs, the grisly power plays and intrigue, her resistance to modernization, and her sense of kinship with Queen Victoria. It would make an outstanding mini-series.

    I wonder how these books would strike me now.  To arrive at any kind of authentic response to them I would have to factor out two significant and conflicting variables: First, there is the cloud of sentiment that engulfs a book read when young.  Any book read with one’s wits about one will accrue a little of the local zeitgeist in which it was read.  My wits, at that time, were being renovated to accommodate the coursing of new emotions in unruly degrees, to say nothing of erotic awakenings. I’ve always caught romanticism a bit too easily and at the time I met Pearl Buck’s oddly archaic books my immune system was virtually useless against it. Her China was so sublimely elsewhere, her morality tales so bracingly more sober than the comedy unfolding around me – to which I felt in every way unequal – that I didn’t so much read them as believe in them. So, to re-read, say, Imperial Woman now, as an adult, would be to read with a long-faced ghost looking over my shoulder.

    Second, there is what I know now of Pearl Buck’s reputation.  She is widely regarded as one of the most laughable blunders of the Nobel committee, which in 1938 awarded her the prize “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.”  People have been fussing about her ever since.  How was it that she was given a place that could have gone to James Joyce?  (Wait till you read, in my next post, what Robert Frost had to say about her win.)  And why does the citation include that word “truly”, as if those descriptions might be misconstrued as not epic, or not quite, without it? Reading one of her books, I would be forever assessing whether or not my response squares with this broadly held opinion.

    There is much to be learned about what we read for and why from the example of Pearl S. Buck.  Much, too, about the mysterious machinations that drive the Nobel Prize. In my next post I will be sharing with you the voices of her supporters as well as her detractors and why I think both have the wrong idea about her. Until then, I leave you with this little curiosity I found while skulking about on some of the more deserted avenues of the web. It is a YouTube audio file of an actress reading roughly the first two pages of the first chapter of Imperial Woman, that book whose now-faded cover prompted me to write all this nonsense.  We are so rarely read to anymore.  I suggest you sample this at night, after you crawl under the covers. You can turn out your light, or leave it on if you wish, but put your head on your pillow and let the narrative take you were it will.

  • The Nobel Prize: In Defense of Caprice

    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.