Strange. I can’t shake the feeling that when the Nobel literature committee sends white smoke up its chimney on Thursday, it will smell like pepernoten and Cees Nooteboom will have a very busy day. While not my first choice, this Dutch author, widely known in Europe for his poetry and travel writing, and in the United States for the few of his short, brilliant, philosophically disarming novels available in English, would cut a distinguished, charming, and very apt figure on Stockholm’s stage, come December. His win would also net The Netherlands its first Nobel laurels for literature.
Unless, that is, the committee decides its time to bring another non-European into the fold. China’s Mo Yan, perhaps. What a delight it would be if they pulled a fast one and gave it to Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Russia’s wicked wise novelist, short story writer, playwright, and cabaret artist. Amos Oz will almost certainly have to wait for some other October to arrive with his moment, unless Stockholm wishes to make overt its often implicit, always coyly denied political motivations. And is it just me, or does the neglect of Chinua Achebe seem unwarranted? I read in David Marr’s biography of Patrick White that the ground-breaking Nigerian writer was on the shortlist as far back as 1973. What happened there? Ladbrokes, Britain’s famous betting company, has Haruki Murakami as the favorite. I don’t see it myself. Perhaps another year. And that Bob Dylan buisness? Cute, but really, that’s enough of that.
So, here is my personal short list: Normally I could yap away all day long about these writers. But My partner, Sam – who seduced me, in part, with books – is gravely ill and in the hospital. Which means I have had neither the time nor the reserves to write cogently the rationale behind my choices. So these five magnificent writers will have to speak for themselves – better, by far, it turns out, than I ever could.
5. Cees Nooteboom (Holland)
Once, and then for good, the spell had been broken. As the chalice was being lifted to where, high above the church, the sun would soon trace its course, the old man suddenly began to tremble. Inni would never forget the scream that followed, never. The raised hands let go of the chalice. The wine, the blood, poured all over his chasuble, and the cloth was torn from the alter in one haul by the monk’s clawing hands, dragging candles, host, and paten with it. A scream as of a huge wounded animal bounced back from the stone walls. The man tugged at his chasuble as though he was trying to tear it asunder, and then, still screaming, he slowly began to fall. His head hit the chalice and started to bleed. When he was already dead, he still went on bleeding, red and red mingled on the islands of shiny silk amid the gold brocade, and it was no longer clear which was which — the wine had become blood, the blood wine.
- from Rituals
4. Ismail Kadare (Albania)
It must have been snowing…there…. Then he stopped writing, snatching away the pen as if afraid it might be held to the paper by magic. It was with an effort that he went on to record, in the succinct style used in the rest of the rest of the Chronicle, the death of Kurt and his own appointment as head of the Palace of Dreams. Then his pen was still again, and he thought of the distant ancestor called Gjon who on a winter’s day several centuries before had built a bridge and at the same time edified his name. The patronymic bore within it, like a secret message, the destiny of the Quprilis for generation after generation. And so that the bridge might endure, a man was sacrificed in its building, walled up in its foundations. And although so much time had gone by since, the traces of his blood had come down to the present generation. So that the Quprilis might endure…
Perhaps that was why — like the ancient Greeks, cutting off their hair at a funeral so that the angry soul of the departed wouldn’t be able to recognize them and do them harm — perhaps that was why the Quprilis had changed their name to Köprülü: to avoid being identified with the bridge.
Mark-Alem knew all this, but remembered how on the fateful night he had longed to throw off the protective mask, the Islamic half-shield of “Alem,” and adopt one of those ancient names that attract danger and were marked by fate.
- from The Palace of Dreams
3. Milan Kundera (France/Czech Republic)
What remains of the dying population of Cambodia?
One large photograph of an American actress holding an Asian child in her arms.
What remains of Tomas?
An inscription reading HE WANTED THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH.
What remains of Beethoven?
A frown, and improbable mane, and a somber voice intoning “Es muss sein!”
What remains of Franz?
An inscription reading A RETURN AFTER LONG WANDERINGS.
And so on and so forth. Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.
- from The Unbearable Lightness of Being
2. Alice Munro (Canada)
Savanna has fallen asleep, her lips slack around the nipple. With the boys out of the way, it’s easier to detach her. Sally can burp her, settle her on her blanket, without worrying about an exposed breast. If Alex finds the sight distasteful — she knows he does, he dislikes the whole conjunction of sex and nourishment, his wife’s breast turned into udders — he can look away, and he does.
As she buttons herself up there comes a cry, not sharp but lost, diminishing, and Alex is on his feet before she is, running along the path. Then a louder cry getting closer. It’s Peter.
“Kent falled in. Kent falled in.”
His father yells, “I’m coming.”
Sally will always believe that she knew at once, even before she heard Peter’s voice she knew what had happened. If any accident happened it would not be to her six-year-old who was brave but not inventive, not a show-off. It would be to Kent. She could see exactly how. Peeing into the hole, balancing on the rim, teasing Peter, teasing himself.
- from Deep-Holes, collected in Too Much Happiness
1. Philip Roth (United States)
What happens when people die, my mother explained, is that they go up to the sky and live on forever as gleaming stars….
That explanation made sense then and, of all things, it made sense again on the night when, wide awake from the stimulus of all that narrative engorgement, I lay out of doors till dawn, thinking that Ira was dead, that Eve was dead, that with the exception perhaps of Sylphid off in her villa on the French Riviera, a rich old woman of seventy-two, all the people with a role in Murray’s account of the Iron Man’s unmaking were now no longer impaled on their moment but dead and free of the traps set for them by their era. Neither the ideas of their era nor the expectations of our species were determining destiny: hydrogen alone was determining destiny. There are no longer mistakes for Eve or Ira to make. There is no betrayal. There is no idealism. There are no falsehoods. There is no class struggle. There is no discrimination or lynching or Jim Crow, nor has there ever been. There is no injustice, nor is there justice. There are no utopias. There are no shovels. Contrary to the folklore, except for the constellation Lyra —which happened to perch high in the eastern sky a little west of the Milky Way and southeast of the two Dippers — there are no harps. There is just the furnace of Ira and the furnace of Eve burning at twenty million degrees.
- from I Married a Communist
Well then, until tomorrow…
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)
Out of the twenty writers named in my last post, here, in ascending order, are my top five choices for the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature:
5. Tom Stoppard
From Great Britain comes one of the world’s greatest living playwrights. His work is characterized by extreme erudition, almost miraculous wordplay, and tremendous philosophical and moral depth. Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead, and the epic The Coast of Utopia, are three of his most famous plays, but my personal favorite is The Invention of Love, about the poet A. E. Houseman, about his unspoken life-long love for a handsome young athlete, and by extension, about silences, the silence of lost classical texts, about the silence of what cannot be communicated through translation, both literal and figurative. Here is part of a monologue spoken by one of Houseman’s associates, Walter Pater, the great critic, essayist and scholar.
PATER: … The Renaissance teaches us that the book of knowledge is not to be learned by rote but is to be written anew in the ecstasy of living each moment for the moment’s sake. Success in life is to maintain this ecstasy, to burn always with this hard gem-like flame. Failure is to form habits. To burn with a gem-like flame is to capture the awareness of each moment; and for that moment only. To form habits is to be absent from those moments. How may we always be present for them? — to garner not the fruits of experience but experience itself?—
(At a distance, getting no closer, Jackson [the object of Houseman's love] is seen as a runner running towards us.)
…to catch at the exquisite passion, the strange flower, or art – or the face of one’s friend? For, not to do so in our short day of frost and sun is to sleep before evening. The conventional morality which requires of us the sacrifice of any one of those moments has no real claim on us. The love of art for art’s sake seeks to nothing in return except the highest quality to the moments of your life, and simply for those moment’s sake.
JOWETT (Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol) Mr. Pater, can you spare a moment?
PATER: Certainly! As many as you like!
4. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
I learned about this astounding writer from Russia a couple of years ago through an article by Jane Smiley in the New York Times Book Review. She mentioned a book of stories called There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. It is, as the title would indicate, a collection like no other, a book of “nekyia” or “night journeys”, descents into the underworld, literal or social, in which one is never sure which reality is the more “real”. Last month, I read her short novel The Time: Night, published in the waning days of the Soviet Union, in which, through the voice of a woman on the edge, a poet trying to hold together her disintegrating family in one hand and her sanity in the other, she lays bare a desperation as harrowing as any I have read. In addition to being one of the most preeminent authors and playwrights in Russia, she is also a popular cabaret artist. May all good things come to this over-the-top genius. Here is the first paragraph of her story The Arm.
During the war, a colonel received a letter from his wife. She misses him very much, it said, and won’t he come visit because she’s worried she’ll die without having seen him. The colonel applied for leave right away, and as it happened that just a few days earlier he’d been awarded a medal, he was granted three days. He got a plane home, but just an hour before his arrival his wife died. He wept, buried his wife, and got on a train back to his base – and suddenly discovered he had lost his Party card. He dug through all his things, returned to the train station – all with great difficulty – but couldn’t find it. Finally he just went home. There he fell asleep and dreamed that he saw his wife, who said that his Party card was in her coffin – it had fallen out when the colonel bent over to kiss her during the funeral. In this dream his wife also told the colonel not to lift the veil from her face.
3. Alice Munro
What this great Canadian dredges up from somewhere near the sewer system of her character’s souls, and how she does it – by sticking unflinchingly to the apparent surface of things – makes her, to my mind, an unqualified genius. Her metier may be the declasse short story, but she has so exploded that form, and in such an organic, un-showy way, that she sits comfortably along side any of the great innovators of fiction at work today. Then there is the service she does for her region, bringing Southwestern Ontario into international consciousness for the first time, as surely as Pearl Buck brought China to the West. Only, Munro has a far superior linguistic apparatus with which she does this. I don’t know anyone who packs so many layers of information into such short, unadorned sentences.
In this passage, from the story The Bear Came Over the Mountain, a man, Grant, unable to care for his wife, Fiona, who has Alzheimer’s disease, has put her a nursing home, where, forgetting their long happy marriage, she falls in love with a fellow patient, Aubrey. Aubrey’s wife has decided to remove her husband from the nursing home and care for him at home. Grant sees his wife’s suffering and takes action:
Then he took the plunge, going on to make the request he’d come to make. Could she consider taking Aubrey back to Meadowlake maybe just one day a week, for a visit? It was only a drive of a few miles, surely it wouldn’t prove too difficult. Or if she’d like to take the time off – Grant hadn’t thought of this before and was rather dismayed to hear himself suggest it – then he himself could take Aubrey out there, he wouldn’t mind at all. He was sure he could manage it. And she could use a break.
While he talked she moved her closed lips and her hidden tongue as if she was trying to identify a dubious flavor. She brought milk for his coffee, and a plate of ginger cookies.
“Homemade,” she said as she set the plate down. There was challenge rather than hospitality in her tone. She said nothing more until she had sat down, poured milk into her coffee and stirred it.
2. Philip Roth
Yes. I know: Sex. Frantic masculinity. A little misogyny, anyone? Endless rants. But really, who in America writes like this? Sam and I frequently discuss him. Sam’s concern is that Roth belongs to the “sex-as-salvation” family of narcissistic straight white male writers. I contend that, to the contrary, his best work lays bare the sheer benightedness of such a theology. And not just sex, but all the signifiers of the “American Dream” – power, wealth, social acceptance – you name it, he gives the lie to it. Far from being adolescent in his sensibility, as he is often accused, he takes down our adolescent country in prose as energetic and beautiful as any being written. Here, from one of my favorite American novels, The Human Stain, is what I mean:
It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn’t stop, when the speculation and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn’t stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one’s children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in the nation and, on both sides, people wondered “Why are we so crazy?”, when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning, discovering that during the night, in a state of sleep that transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of the brazenness of Bill Clinton. I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing a legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE. It was the summer when – for the billionth time – the jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one’s ideology and that one’s morality. It was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.
1. Tomas Tranströmer
Here is an example to illustrate why, to my mind, there is no greater living poet than this man from Sweden.
2 A.M.: moonlight. The train has stopped
out in a field. Far-off sparks of light from the town,
flickering coldly on the horizon.
As when a man goes so deep into his dream
he will never remember that he was there
when he returns to his room.
Or when a person goes so deep into a sickness
that his days all become some flickering sparks, a swarm,
feeble and cold on the horizon.
The train is entirely motionless.
2 o’clock: strong moonlight, few stars.
The award is scheduled to be announced this Thursday, October 6th. Until then, let the speculations fly. Who would it just make your week to see honored this year, and why?
It’s Autumn, and the Nobel season is fast upon us. Whether or not it be “of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” the fruit of some some lucky author’s labor has ripened at last and is about to drop from that great Northern branch. The question remains, will it land in the favored one’s lap, or on his or her head? Or will the poor thing look up at the wrong moment and get it on the face? All have been the case.
“It makes no difference,” we say of the Nobel Prize. Quite rightly too – or at any rate with rectitude. “No Tolstoy, no Woolf, no credibility.” Yet we know full well that such protestations are nothing but the posturing of a twelve year old trying to be canny about Christmas. In spite of our good sense, our heart rates run on sensibility, and the Nobel is nothing if not a tanker of sensibility. And so we find ourselves a little charged, a little addled from about the first of October until announcement day, as if something of actual importance were afoot, as if Stockholm really were Olympus, as it claims. As if there really were a Santa Claus.
When the winner is announced, there are really only three possible responses: “Who?” “Why?”, or, rarer, “Why, of course.” Last year’s winner elicited all three. I remember just where I was and what I was doing when I first learned that the award had gone to Mario Vargas Llosa. I was at the gym, hamstering on the treadmill. I glanced up at the nearest hanging television screen which happened to be tuned to CNN, and caught handsome Don Lemon telling Wolf Blitzer, standing across the high-gloss newsroom set, “This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to…some guy from Peru…Mario Vargas…Yeosa. Where do they find these guys?” A fun variation of “Who?”.
I also remember Sam’s reaction when I got home and told him. “You’re kidding,” he said. “That’s ridiculous!” The only time I have seen him more indignant about the Nobel was after reading The Golden Notebook, a book which ignited in him a fond loathing for Doris Lessing. His response illustrated the “Why?” position. I happened to think Vargas Llosa was a logical choice. “Why, of course.” Only, my heart went out to Carlos Fuentes, the Latin American author I would have preferred to see win. “No doubt, he’ll be out with a bad case of the flu for the rest of the month.” “For the rest of his life,” Sam rejoined. All this indicates a potential fourth response, one that draws on the flavor of all three, the “Oh. So that’s how it is,” response, generally followed by the “Maybe next year…” response.
But, I’m getting ahead of things. Right now it is time to celebrate caprice (see my first post: “The Nobel Prize: In Defense of Caprice” 2/26/11), or, as commenter Andsnes said, to move, intellectually, as children at play “in curvilinear ways.” For example, one member of the Shelfari discussion group (see link) put forth some most unexpected names as Nobel contenders: Hillary Mantel, Geraldine Brooks, Jhumpa Lahiri, fine writers all, but none of whom I would have connected to the Nobel. And yet, it is a moment of play, that disconnect, like the mechanics of a good joke, so critical to our psychological health. I am all at once confronted with the question of why their names would not occur to me. But they did occur to someone else. How interesting. Or, how about this one: I have a friend who thinks it should go to Terry Pratchett. Honestly! Now, I can call that for the absurdity it is, and yet I must affirm the spirit of play in which the suggestion was made. There is a touching exuberance with which we who worship our books project our own hopes and dreams onto our favorite authors, expecting them to reflect well-being back to us. What better for my friend than Terry Pratchett winning a Nobel. It would feel like winning one himself.
On LibraryThing, I’ve been trying to work out with a couple of members just why they think Ngugi wa Thiong’o, worthy as he is for his use of his tribal language, would make a better African choice than Chinua Achebe, really the progenitor of the very concept of African literature destined for the world stage. This kind of go-around is, to me, the true worth of the Nobel Prize. Rather than some self-serving imprimatur, The Nobel Prize for Literature is an arms-flung-wide invitation for all of us who thrive on our reading to play with our intellectual food. This is not frivolous. Its how we get a grip on who we are, what we think, what holds meaning for us.
To get the party started, Here is my long list, twenty authors I would love to see win this year.
My Long List:
1. Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)
2, Adonis (Lebanon)
3. Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portugal)
4. Bei Dao (China)
5. Annie Dillard (United States)
6. Carlos Fuentes (Mexico)
7. Ismail Kadare (Albania)
8. Gyorgy Konrad (Hungary)
9. Milan Kundera (France)
10. Cormac McCarthy (United States)
11. Javier Marias (Spain)
12. Alice Munro (Canada)
13. Les Murray (Australia)
14. Cees Nooteboom (Netherlands)
15. Amos Oz (Israel)
16. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Russia)
17. Philip Roth (United States)
18. Tom Stoppard (Great Britian)
19. Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden)
20. William Trevor. (Ireland)
Next week I’ll give you my shortlist, my top five choices, with a sentence or two about why I think they are especially deserving. But, for now, its your turn. Don’t be bashful. It doesn’t suit you. You have opinions. The “comments” icon is right here. Share your list.
- 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature (5)
- 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature (3)
- American laureates (7)
- Asian laureates (1)
- British laureates (2)
- Brodsky, Joseph (1)
- Buck, Pearl S. (3)
- Chinese language laureates (1)
- Elytis, Odysseus (3)
- English language laureates (16)
- Garcia Marquez, Gabriel (2)
- Golding, William (4)
- Hemingway, Ernest (1)
- Le Clézio, J. M. G. (1)
- Mahfouz, Naguib (1)
- Milosz, Czeslaw (3)
- Mistral, Gabriela (1)
- Mo Yan (2)
- Morrison, Toni (3)
- Müller, Herta (2)
- Naipaul, V. S. (1)
- Nobel Cinema (1)
- Nobel Knowlege Literature Quiz (4)
- Nobel Prize for Literature (11)
- Novelists (21)
- Novels (9)
- Poems (13)
- Poets (14)
- Sholokhov, Mikhail (1)
- Should have won (2)
- Symborska, Wislawa (1)
- The Prize should go to… (4)
- Tranströmer, Tomas (3)
- Walcott, Derek (4)
- White, Patrick (3)
- You weren't going to forget about ___ were you? (4)
Literary web sites and blogs