• Tag Archives 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature
  • Belorusian Journalist Svetlana Alexievich Wins the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature


    Svetlana Alexievich, 2015 Nobel Laureate
    Svetlana Alexievich, 2015 Nobel Laureate

    Nobel laureates Theodor Mommsen, Rudolph Eucken, Henri Bergson, Bertrand Russell, and Winston Churchill have spent many decades receding from memory. To be sure, they are not altogether lost, a century and some is not long enough in the modern era for total erasure. Churchill’s name we know, albeit for other reasons. Russell’s and Bergson’s have a familiar echo. A few historians whose specialty is ancient Rome know something of Mommsen. Eucken has all but vanished. A dustier collection of books never hid along the nether reaches of the library stacks.

    Today the Belorusian writer Svetlana Alexievich joined their ranks, becoming the sixth writer to be awarded the world’s most prestigious literary prize for work that is neither fiction, nor poetry, nor drama. That is to say, nothing of what is almost universally meant by “literature”. One would like to say that her being so honored could blow some of the dust off the other five’s books, renew interest in their achievements. It is not likely. One would also like to say that she will not share there fate, once a similar number of decades have past. This no one can say. What can be said is even within this small group, she is in a minority of one, winning not for history, or philosophy, but for journalism. More an occupation, you would be forgiven for thinking, than a literary pursuit, although many writers have done time as journalists.  It seems ever more a thing of the past that an aspiring novelist, following the Hemingway model, would consent to an apprenticeship of investigative journalism to make ends meet during their early careers. So, on a list of eminences such as Peter Nadas, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Philip Roth, and Adam Zagajewski, all potential candidates for the Nobel, it is easy to view Alexievich’s work as déclassé. Admirable, to be sure, even important. But literature?

    We should, perhaps, take another look. She is, after all, a writer. Voices from Chernobyl, and Zinky Boys are, in fact, books, and, by all accounts, the quality of the writing they exhibit is high and the formal innovation worthy of note. Further, they are books which shoulder the burden of their gravely difficult content without stumbling. In light of these considerations, perhaps we must confess a bias that begs challenging.

    That said, the award of the day really should go to the Nobel committee itself for pulling off a bit of a stunt. They succeeded in being simultaneously progressive and conservative, edgy and drearily  establishment. They have, on the one hand, cracked open the whole idea of what constitutes literature – and this is a very good thing as there are many great writers waiting on the margins (In a texting exchange with my friend Nathan yesterday, he asked why there has been such a buzz about a possible win for Svetlana Alexievich while no one is talking about Elena Poneiatowska. As with so many of the authors I hear about from Nathan, I had to google her. I learned that she is a Mexican journalist, winner of the hugely prestigious Cervantes Prize, who has, among her many and lofty credits, a book called La Noche de Tlatelocloco, containing testimonies of the victims of the 1968 student massacre in Mexico City. Thank you, Nathan, as always.)

    So. Good for Stockholm. On the other hand, the choice of Alexievich harkens back to the blandest, most conservative interpretation of Alfred Nobel’s poorly worded will which stipulates that the award should go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” In the early years of the award the term “ideal direction” was interpreted to mean something like “edifying”, “uplifting”, “holding to high ideals”. Basically, it was set up to reward literature that was “good for you,” and, by implication, to penalize literature that was, somehow, not. And so, instead of giving the award to Emil Zola, Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Hardy, or James Joyce, each of whose work was considered in one way or another unwholesome, the award went to writers startling in their mediocrity, like Karl Adolph Gjellerup “for his varied and rich poetry, which is inspired by lofty ideals”. Over the decades, the interpretation has shifted in various ways. Sometimes it has been taken to mean consonant to the great humanistic project, thereby enabling the committee to honor such worthy writers as Romain Rolland and Boris Pasternak. But however the committee interprets it, they are saddled with the idea of literature being taken in a particular “direction.” It is a hopelessly moralistic project, which, somehow, the very best writers to be honored – Shaw, Faulkner, Mann, Beckett, Marquez, Eliot, and a handful of others – have transcended. Or, conversely, the Swedish Academy itself has occasionally been able to transcended the limitations of Nobel’s will so as to perceive these writers as great artists, ideal or not.

    The committee will claim that “idealism” is no longer a concern, that it is an outmoded criterion, and that only the “best” writing is considered. But listen to  Permanent Secretary Sara Danius’s post-announcement comments about Svetlana Alexievich. She says that this remarkable writer has been involved in a project of “mapping the Soviet, and post-Soviet, individual,” of writing down “a history of the human being about whom we really didn’t know that much, at least not in this systematic manner,” of documenting “a history of emotions, a history of the soul, if you wish.” These are all extra-literary concerns, all driven by unassailable “ideals.”

    I have not yet read Svetlana Alexievich’s books. I have no reason to doubt that she is a significant writer. She certainly seems to be an important one. Perhaps she is even a great one. I look forward to finding out.

  • The 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature: My Shortlist


    In trying to nail down the genesis of my interest in the Nobel Prize, the best I’ve been able to come up with is that that when I was four years old I fell down the stairs. It was my first memorable lesson in the randomness of things. “How could this have happened?” screamed my young consciousness and in that moment I realized something had to be done about an environment disorderly enough to permit such a humiliation. In the interest of personal safety, I adopted various policies, such as refusing to listen to any one of my long-playing records until I had listened to all of them, in order. Take that, ye dark powers! The Swedish Academy often appears to obey some similarly recondite logic; the announcements, and pronouncements, are delivered, against general bewilderment, with bracing assurance, like a child explaining exactly why it is necessary to check for dandelions in his breakfast cereal. They say “This. This one here has made all the difference,” thereby holding at bay, or seeming to, or at least to their own satisfaction, the whole chaotic ocean of contemporary literature. The Nobel Prize is a hedge against a universe where, with a single misstep one can tumble down a never-ending staircase.

    There is a character in László Krasznahorkai’s novel Seiobo There Below whose passion for baroque music is so fierce that he can only view the music of any other era as inferior, Mozart and Beethoven notwithstanding. The reader wonders how it came to be that the full scope of music throughout history poses such a threat to his sensibilities that he must set this rigid limitation. Yet we are sympathetic. He’s the kind of person we would be loathed to sit next to on a flight or on the bus, but, from the safe distance of the printed page, we quietly admire his dedication, and, even more, his capacity to love something so much. Besides, we think, the world needs its quota of cranks. But he becomes an object of tragic fascination insofar as he is unable to live alone with this passion. He must share it. Which is to say, he must share the unsharable. He is profoundly overweight, because, we sense, his lone and hermetic yearning swells within him.  He gives a lecture in the library of a small town’s cultural center, entitled “A Century and a Half of Heaven”, to an audience of eight elderly men and women.  He becomes glassy-eyed as he describes the opening measures of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and a veritable Jonathan Edwards against all whom he considers comers to musical pretensions. His so-called lecture is really more of a rant, impassioned, windy, well-informed yet oddly un-informative, and so incomprehensible to his red-eyed and arthritic audience that the only thing keeping that audience in thrall is it’s collective anxiety about his suspenders. Will they hold? In the end, he leaves the podium, buttons his coat and, with tears in his eyes, walks out the door, saying at the top of his voice, from The Passion, “Mein Jesu, gute Nacht! Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!” He weeps, not for beauty, but because he has failed, as he will always fail, to show that beauty, so personal, so encompassing, to anyone else.

    The Nobel Prize often has this quality, minus the pathos, of a private passion publicly shared. Often the winner is literally the obsession of a single member of the committee who plumps for him or her for years. When, late in life, Arthur Lundkvist was offered a place in the Swedish Academy, he accepted, with reservations, largely with the intent of securing the Nobel for an Australian writer hardly anyone in Sweden had even heard of, let alone read. In 1973 he succeeded in wearing his fellow committee members down and Patrick White received the prize.

    Like the lecture delivered by Krazhnahorkai’s character, the statements issued following a Nobel announcement tend to be impassioned (in the Scandinavian sense of the word, that is, not in delivery but in the furrow-browed urgency of the content), windy, well-informed yet oddly un-informative. Take, for example, Permanent Secretary Peter Englund’s description of Patrick Modiano: “A Marcel Proust for our time.” Not only does this give no sense at all of the kind of writer Modiano is, it is actually entirely misleading; apart from writing in French, and, alright, treating of memory, his work is nothing at all like Proust’s. In fact, with his short books filled with short, perfect, if rather fazed sentences, Modiano might even be held up as Proust’s antithesis. But there is something touching in the ardency of Englund’s assertion. He clearly admires this writer.

    In a couple days a new winner will be announced. What private passion will be put forth as the perfect hedge against all that literature out there, waiting to overwhelm us?




    António Lobo Antunes (1942-)
    António Lobo Antunes (1942-)

    Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portugal)

    There’s a piano in the sand, he thought as he beheld a black and almost geometric thicket behind  a bundle of reeds, a piano in the sand circled by gulls and other ocean birds, and his straggly-haired grandmother, wrapped in the wedding dress he had kept in a chest, tapped her arthritic fingers over the caries-riddled keys, stumbling through a children’s lullaby. The low-blowing breeze made the tulle of her veil flutter. There was a dead cat in the sand, nearly covered over by the shore’s stubble. A cloud of huge flies, blue-winged and red-bodied, buzzed around it. The anchored boats lazily shifted their haunches. He stood for a moment, empty-eyed, looking at the rotted animal, then turned and went back to the inn.

    • from An Explanation of the Birds
    Julia Hartwig (1921-)
    Julia Hartwig (1921-)

    Julia Hartwig (Poland)

    How to Honor a Place

    An inscription announces that the continental divide
    between the Pacific and the Atlantic
    runs exactly here

    A river with its beginning in this region
    must think hard
    which of the two oceans it should belong to
    which mother it acknowledges
    in whose gullet it is to be lost forever
    and become nameless

    How to honor this unique place
    with a shout with silence
    I am standing over the divide
    as if on the back of a bison blinded by the sun
    with its legs spread out The rain of waters
    flows on both is shining sides

    And I
    where do I belong

    László Krasznahorkai (1954-)
    László Krasznahorkai (1954-)

    Laszlo Krasznahorkai (Hungary)

    A bird fishing in the water: to an indifferent bystander, if he were to notice, perhaps that is all he would see—-he would, however, not just have to notice but would have to know in the widening comprehension of the first glance, at least to know and to see just how much this motionless bird, fishing there in between the grassy islets of the shallow water, how much this bird was accursedly superfluous; indeed he would have to be conscious, immediately conscious, of how much this enormous snow-white dignified creature is defenseless—-because it was superfluous and defenseless, yes, and as so often, the one satisfactorily accounted for the other, namely, its superfluity made it defenseless and its defenselessness made it superfluous: a defenseless and superfluous sublimity;

    • from Seiobo There Below
    Javier Marías (1951-)
    Javier Marías (1951-)

    Javier Marias (Spain)

    How could he have spent half his life with a colleague, a close friend — half his childhood, his schooldays, his youth — without having so much as an inkling of his true nature, or, at least, of his possible? (But perhaps any nature is possible in all of us.) How can someone not see, in the long term, that the person who does end up ruining us will indeed ruin us? How can you not sense or guess at their plotting, their machinations, their circular dance, not smell their hostility or breath their despair, not notice their slow skulking, their leisurely, languishing waiting, and the inevitable impatience that they would have had to contain for who knows how many years? How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it?

    • from, Your Face Tomorrow, vol. I: Fever and Spear
    Michel Tournier (1924-)
    Michel Tournier (1924-)

    Michel Tournier (France)

    February 12, 1938. A woman customer came in to see me. She had her little girl with her, a child of about five or six, who got scolded when they were leaving for trying to shake hands with me with her left hand. It suddenly struck me that in fact most children under seven—the age of reason!—naturally offer to shake hands with the left hand instead of the right. Sancta simplicitas! They know, in their innocence, that the right hand is soiled by the vilest contacts: that every day it puts itself into the hands of murderers, priests, policemen and politicians as blithely as a whore hops into a rich man’s bed, whereas the humble unobtrusive left hand keeps in the background like a vestal, reserved for sisterly clasps alone. Must remember this lesson and always hold out my left hand to children under seven.

    • from, The Ogre