Almost as good as when those crazy Swedes choose to honor one of my cherished writers is when they choose to honor someone I’ve never heard of. Ignorance becomes a virtue, or nearly, just to have that moment when it gets broken. There is, to be sure, that brief feeling of letdown. No Philip Roth (surprise surprise). No Péter Nádas or Salman Rushdie. But now, Patrick Modiano. A French author honored so soon on the heals of J. M. G. Le Clézio (2008) and while the great Michel Tournier is still living. Interesting. Why him?
Americans will get a lot of mileage out of this one. Our favorite cultural pass time is getting grass stains sliding around on the triumph/resentment field: When one of us is acknowledged we give a fist pump of arrival, masking with bravado our secret surprise that we indeed have what it takes, while when someone from the wider world – which over and over turns out to be much wider – is acknowledged, we feel snubbed, and fall to denigrating the institution giving the honor. Our favorite epithet for the Swedish Academy and their Nobel Committee is that they are “snobbish”. As if they’ve cornered the market on snobbishness. One way or another, they clearly have it in for us, or so we whine, seeing as how the last of our eight Nobel Prizes (not counting those won by emigres) was awarded clear back in 1992 (Go Toni Morrison!). It’s hard to imagine the same foul-calling going on in, say, Spain, which has only won five Nobels and none since 1989, where 83-year-old Juan Goytisolo and 63-year-old Javier Marias have for decades been card-carrying members of the literary giant’s club.
There was, of course, Horace Engdahl’s famous dismissal of American literature in 2008, in which he pronounced it “too isolated, too insular,” and said, rather priggishly, that Europe was “the centre of the literary world.” But I’m not convinced that his archly supercilious comment, which, in the end, he resigned over, points to quite the entrenched anti-American conspiracy that commentators made out. Is the significance of Patrick Modiano, Alice Munro, Herta Müller, and José Saramago really only that they are chess pieces for blocking the American drama queen, Philip Roth? And let’s say it’s true – and it certainly could be – that the Swedish Academy has a bias against American literature and literary taste, isn’t it still just a wee bit grandiose of us to think that this is a worse bias than any other they might have?
I, for one, am looking forward to discovering Patrick Modiano’s books. Peter Englund says I could easily read one of them in the afternoon, have dinner, and read another in the evening.