• Tag Archives Milan Kundera
  • 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature – My Personal Shortlist

    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…

  • 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.