The Swedish papers once ran a story about a young man, escaped from the Roxtuna institution for juvenile offenders near Linköping, who set off adventuring across the countryside. I picture him tall, glittery-eyed and touseled blond, sharp-shouldered at one end and big-hoofed at the other. It was the early 1960s and being on the lam was more or less the law of the time. He got as far as he did by registering in hostels and inns under the name “T. Tranströmer, psychologist.”*
His assumed namesake must have loved this story, and this boy. How many troubled young men had the real T. Tranströmer, psychologist urged to break free of what limited them in their self-understanding. This one just externalized his counsel. What we take for audacity, he would almost certainly take for a level-headed nod to the way things are: Substances, what we might call the reality of things, things such as walls, names, and boys, are porous, mutable.
He has often been asked if his work as a psychologist has influenced his poetry. The question seems slightly disingenuous; no one would ask it who didn’t already presume it has. On one occasion he answered his questioner by noting how odd it was that no one ever asked him, “How has your poetry affected your work?”**
A barrier breached, a boy escapes. This is what barriers are for. Escape is impossible without them. Tomas Tranströmer is the great poet of the disconcertion and amazement, the mysterium tremendum, that awaits us at barriers and borders. And we are always scrapping at borders, be they a reformatory’s walls, the porous, mutable boundary between the physical and the metaphysical, the border state between waking and sleep, or the moment before and after we decide to love. Listen to the first quatrain of “The Couple”:
They turn the light off, and its white globe glows an instant an then dissolves, like a tablet in a glass of darkness. Then a rising. The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.
Tomas Tranströmer and Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, "Adonis"
Tomas Tranströmer has spent his life crossing borders. He is remarkably well-traveled for a man of two rather stationary and time-intensive professions. Iceland, Greece, Turkey, Spain, the United States, Africa, The Balkans, the Baltics – all these places arrive in his poetry. A recent border crossing occurred five years ago when the Syrian poet, Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, better known as Adonis, accompanied him on a journey into the Arab world. The occasion was the publication of an Arabic translation of his complete works. Adonis, who has worked hard to introduce Tranströmer to Arabic readers, said, “Transtromer tries to present his human state in poetry, with poetry as the art revealing the situation. While his roots are deep into the land of poetry, with its classical, symbolic and rhythmic aspects, yet he cannot be classified as belonging to one school; he’s one and many, allowing us to observe through his poetry the seen and unseen in one mix creating his poetry, as if its essence is that of the flower of the world.”***
“The flower of the world” is a term which trips lightly off the tongue of an Arabic poet, and would never be found in a Tranströmer poem. Most readers find his work mystical, but he is, himself, shy of that word. Evoking the mystery of reality? Certainly. Mystic? Not so fast.
A true Scandinavian.
He has described the poems of his cycle, Baltics, which arose from his travels in Soviet controlled Latvia and Estonia, as his “most consistent attempt to write music.” One of his English translators, Robin Fulton, has observed that these poems are full of thematic returns and variations, music’s stock and trade. As well as being a great poet, Tranströmer is an accomplished pianist. An important pairing for him; music has long been a means by which he has approached the border between those realms of experience which invite the free commerce of words, and those which, against all efforts, deny their entry. He has frequently made runs on this border in his poetry. His love for music is sometimes explicit, as in his homages to composers: Liszt and Wagner in “Grief Gondola #2″, Mily Balakirev in “Balakirev’s Dream (1905)”, Haydn, in “Allegro”, and, of course, “Schubertiana”. But often his music-love is quieter, organic. Notice the progression, the “motivic transformation” if you will, in “Slow Music”; it begins with something large, inchoate, which “crowds in” to a finite space, and ends with something finite, knowable more or less, emerging from something large and inchoate:
The building not open today. The sun crowds in through the windowpanes and warms the upper side of the desk which is strong enough to bear the fate of others.
Today we are outdoors, on the long wide slope. Some have dark clothes. If you stand in the sun, and shut your eyes, you feel as if you were being slowly blown forward.
I come too seldom down to the sea. But now I have come, among good-sized stones with peaceful backs. The stones have been gradually walking backwards out of the sea.
Much has been made of Tranströmer’s evocations of nature. In the work of a good poet, like Mary Oliver, nature is mined for what it signifies. There is frequently a moral imperative to move towards it, emulate it where possible, show regret where it is lost. Nature becomes a tool for transformation. In a great poet, like Tranströmer, nature is approached differently, as part of the full spectrum of what we experience, of equal valence with buildings, desks, dark clothes, and wherever we might be when not at the sea. No moral is drawn, and therefore no intellectual filter – apart from the poem itself – to diminish nature’s impact, or its mystery. Nature is left tremendous, and we to our own devices.
In 1990, at the age of 59, Tranströmer crossed a different kind of border when he suffered a stroke which took from him the use of his right arm and all but about twenty words to speak. No more prelude-and-fuguing, no more expansive and expanding conversations. He now depends on his wife, Monica, to help him communicate. But he retains the use of his left hand, which means that he can still write, and he can still play piano pieces for the left hand, of which there is a surprisingly wide and remarkable literature, a few works of which were composed especially for him. When he accepts the Nobel Prize in December, he will step up, not to a podium, but to a piano.
After a black day, I play Haydn, and feel a little warmth in my hands.
The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall. The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.
The sound says that freedom exists and someone pays no taxes to Caesar.
I shove my hands in my haydnpockets and act like a man who is calm about it all.
I raise my haydnflag. The signal is: “We do not surrender. But want peace.”
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope; rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house but every pane of glass is still whole.
*The Half-Finished Heaven: The best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, chosen and translated by Robert Bly, Graywolf Press, St. Paul, MN, (2001). (All translations are from this edition.)
I woke up Thursday morning batting off the vestiges of a grisly dream: a lime-faced Bob Dylan had been swinging his guitar and showing a knobby leg to that famous Swedish conclave, hoping they’d tuck a Nobel Prize in his garter. Puffy and winded, I turned on my laptop to check the news on my BBC homepage, something I never do straight off after hauling myself out of bed. And there it was. The Nobel had been awarded, not to Dylan, but to the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. Brushing off the last hairs of the dream, I felt the need to cry. When the winner of the Nobel Prize happens to be your personal first choice, you feel at once elated and abashed, as if you’d discovered the ability to move silverware across the table with your mind, or the art of levitation. (It happened to me once before, with Orhan Pamuk: At the end of September, 2006, I picked up My Name is Red, thinking how fun it would be to be reading Pamuk when he won.)
It all gets to me more than it should, like football or soaps in other quarters. All day I found myself forgetting things, like eating breakfast, or returning a library book which had been set right where I’d have to trip over it to get out the front door. You should have seen me trying to count change at Starbucks. Lines from poems kept imposing on my thoughts:
Passing through walls hurts human beings, they get sick from it,/ but we have no choice. (“Vermeer”)
But those who glance enviously at men of action, people who/ despise themselves inside for not being murderers,/ do not find themselves in this music. (“Schubertiana”)
Like most poetry readers, I know very few people with whom I can share that delight, and among those even fewer who are acquainted with Tomas Tranströmer, so for most of the day I kept my delight to myself, which undoubtedly produced on my face more than one goofy abstracted look.
It’s been a hard winter, but summer is here and the fields want us to walk upright. Every man unimpeded, but careful, as when you stand up in a small boat. (“Standing Up”)
Me a sentimentalist? Nonetheless, on Thursday night I made Swedish meatballs, salty and scented with allspice and nutmeg, seared, then baked in a roux-and-beef broth gravy enriched, not with cream, but with buttermilk and a splash or two of dry sherry. Sam, also a great a lover of Tranströmer, made a Swedish “visiting” cake, rustic and golden. We celebrated as we could.
There will be those who feel this year’s Nobel prize was lost by Adonis. There will be those who will aim their snark guns at Scandinavians looking out for each other. There will be those who will use this award to a European as an excuse to raise the tired rant about the Nobel committee’s policy of stonewalling Americans. But, as more and more people use the occasion as impetus to discover Tranströmer for themselves, it will come clear that the only question to be raised against this choice is why it took so long.
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.