• Tag Archives Nobel Prize for Literature
  • Test your Nobel Knowledge: A Mystery Passage (rescued from Borders Bookstore)

    With the dissolution of Borders Bookstore, my personal library has expanded by more than a dozen books. A melancholy enterprise, buying those books.  I don’t like to think of myself as an anonymous member of a swarm, but there I was, there we all were, picking clean the stacks, like flies on a carcass (Perish the thought that the image from this month’s mystery passage be more apt.)

    How badly did I need those books?  As it turns out, they were all quite necessary.  A careful scan around the house revealed to me a pressing issue: The double-stacked shelves with thinner books jammed horizontally on top of the vertical books looked good, but – how could I have missed it – a couple of corners were still somehow naked of books.  Okay, full disclosure: One of those corners did have a small pile, but rising to an insufficient height. I like my books-in-corners to create a kind of faux wainscoting.  This had to be solved, and the Borders liquidation sale was just the ticket. Because of Borders’s gross mismanagement, I now have William Trevor’s Selected Stories,  Carlos Fuentes’s Destiny and Desire, and the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Doctor Zhivago working well as three of the heavy lifters, providing a base for some of the smaller books, such as A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, an Everyman edition of Blood Meridian, a couple of Mario Vargas Llosa novels and some Susan Sontag. Plus, thanks to Sam’s efforts, we have added a new peninsula to our cookbook collection. At Elizabeth David’s Table: Classic Recipes and Timeless Kitchen Wisdom and the new Culinaria China are the two stars of this feature. There is still room for expansion, but the effect is satisfying.

    Will I actually read all these new books and try all the new recipes?  Taking into account my current backlog, adding to that all the books I don’t even know about yet, and assuming medical science can raise the average human life expectancy to about four hundred, I might just make it under the wire.  Death cannot be interrupted, Jose Saramago’s fantasy notwithstanding, but we in America can always use rampant acquisition to bolster our illusions.

    Among my purchases was a new translation of a famous novel, a book I read years ago and loved. It is always disconcerting how much a novel fades from memory over time, even one greatly enjoyed.  But there is one scene from this particular novel that has remained with me, and probably always will.  I’ll give you its more salient moments. See what you can make of it:

    I turned away from the Swede as the docker rose with some effort. “Well now, let’s just take a little look and see what we got.” This he said to Matzerath, who had no idea what he was talking about but still concurred.  Steadily repeating “let’s just take” and “a little look,” the docker kept hauling on the line, but with more effort now, then climbed down the stones alongside the line and thrust — Mama didn’t turn away in time — thrust his whole arm into the blubbering bay between the granite stones, felt around, got hold of something, grabbed tight, pulled, and crying out to us to stand back, swung something upward, something heavy and dripping, a spraying, living clump, into our midst: a horse’s head, a fresh head, a real one, the head of a black horse with a black mane, which only yesterday or the day before may still have been whinnying, for the head was not yet rotten, did not stink, smelled at most of the Mottlau, like everything else on the jetty.

    The man with the docker’s cap, which was now pushed far back on his head, was standing over the horseflesh, from which small light green eels were furiously wriggling.  The man had a hard time catching them, for eels move quickly and surely over smooth stone, especially when it’s damp.  Seagulls and the screech of seagulls were instantly above us.  They pecked away, three or four of them easily handling a small to medium-sized eel, nor could they be driven off, for the jetty was their domain. Nevertheless the docker, thrusting his arm forcefully among the gulls and grabbing hold, managed to stuff perhaps two dozen smaller eels into his sack, which Matzerath, helpful as ever, held out for him.  He was too busy to see Mama’s face turn the the color of cheese, as she laid first her hand and then her head on Jan’s shoulder and velvet collar.


    Nor did they listen to Oskar, who weighed in against the gulls with his drum and battled their whiteness with a whirl of his sticks on white lacquer.  But that didn’t help, at most turned the gulls even whiter.  Matzerath, however was not worried in the least about Mama.  He laughed and mimicked the docker, showed how strong his nerves were, and when the docker was practically done and with a final flourish pulled a huge eel out through the horse’s ear, causing the white gruel of the horse’s brain to dribble out with it, Matzerath’s face too turned the color of cheese, but he still couldn’t stop showing off, bought two medium-sized and two large eels from the docker for practically nothing, then tried to talk him down even further.


    The game is simple: 1. Guess the author.  2. Guess the book.

    As before, your speculations and imaginings are far more interesting than a mere correct answer.  If you’ve read the book from which comes this slimy scene, please share any thoughts you might have about it or (here’s a clue) its somewhat controversial author.

  • Test Your Nobel Knowledege: Your First Mystery Passage

    Following the Nobel Prize for Literature presents the dedicated reader with a remarkable, sometimes peculiar reading list.  That you have found your way to this blog indicates one of two things about you: either you are a friend whom I have shamed into visiting my site, or you have, over the course of your reading life, nurtured some affinity for the works of this always quirky, often magnificent group of writers.

    My plan is this: Once a month I will give you a chance to take your own knowledge out for a joy ride.  I’ll present you with a passage by one of the writers on that redoubtable Scandinavian list. You try to guess who it is. Perhaps you will be familiar with the passage. In that case, share what you know.  Perhaps you’ll be at a loss as to just what or who you are reading.  This is most to be desired because it will be your chance to run with your hunches, speculate wildly, give an unprejudiced response. A piece of writing may strike you, for whatever reason, as particularly French, or German, or the work of a woman, or modern (or modernist) or a bit archaic. Go with these.  I’m much more interested in your mental peregrinations than in correct answers. At the end of the passage I’ll give you a short list of questions. Use them playfully, like queries on a game-show quiz, or as prompts for other kinds of responses. You can also phrase your responses as further questions, for me or other respondents. Ask for hints.

    Here, then, is your first passage.  It is from a famous work by one of the better known laureates. In the future, I’ll push your knowledge a bit harder, giving you excerpts from some of those early and mid-20th century writers whose reputations have taken a holiday on the back slopes of more famous literary mountains. But for now, I give you this, by a writer I hope you have read. If you haven’t, I extend my love and compassion to you, and urge you to rectify what is in your power to change.

    After the first letter that she carried to the telegraph office with an ember of revenge against her own destiny, she had allowed an almost daily exchange of messages in what appeared to be casual encounters on the street, but she did not have the courage to permit a conversation, no matter how banal and fleeting it might be.  Still, after three months she realized that her niece was not the victim of a girlish fancy, as it had seemed at first, and that her own life was threatened by the fire of love.  The truth was that Escolastica Daza had no other means of support except her brother’s charity, and she knew that his tyrannical nature would never forgive such a betrayal of his confidence. But when it was time for the final decision, she did not have the heart to cause her niece the same irreparable grief that she had been obliged to nurture ever since her youth, and she permitted her to use a strategy that allowed her the illusion of innocence. The method was simple:  Fermina Daza would leave her letter in some hiding place along her daily route from the house to the Academy, and in that letter she would indicate to Florentino Ariza where she expected to find his answer.  Florentino Ariza did the same.  In this way, for the rest of the year, the conflicts in Aunt Escolastica’s conscience were transferred to baptisteries in churches, holes in trees, and crannies in ruined colonial fortresses.  Sometimes their letters were soaked by rain, soiled by mud, torn by adversity, and some were lost for a variety of other reasons, but they always found a way to be in touch with each other again.

    Here are your questions.  Answer any or all of them.

    1.     Who is this writer?

    2.     What work is this passage from?

    3.     Do you know where this writer is from?  What cultural elements show up in this passage that might provide a clue about the author’s nationality?

    4.     Anything else you would like to say about this passage, the writer, or, if you’re confident you’ve read this before, your memories of this work?

    Have fun with this. If none of you are able to guess what or who this is, I will consider you all impoverished, cave in and tell you, but with a strong admonishment to get to your reading.  I hope you’ll be back in early September for the next Nobel Literature quiz.

  • The Nobel Prize: In Defense of Caprice

    I once told a friend that, as part of my lifetime reading odyssey, I plan to read at least one work by each of the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Giving me a look like some old uncle suffering his callow but amusing nephew, he said, “That’s an…unusual way to organize your reading.” Unusual” was clearly his cover word for “completely daft. Idiotic, even.” I got the message and quietly put away what I had stupidly hoped would be an interesting conversation.

    The rant about how Stockholm’s annual bear hug to literature is a highly unreliable measure of actual excellence has long been sung in hearty chorus and scarcely requires further rehearsal.  In 1998, just before José Saramago won, the New Yorker ran an article about the prize.  I remember the author’s cagey assertion about the previous year’s laureate. “That there are hundreds of first rate playwrights at work in the world goes without saying.  That Dario Fo is not one of them also goes without saying.” I remember smiling at this formulation, as I was no doubt intended to, pleased to chalk in a point next to the author’s name on his own scoreboard of wit.  I have since come to suspect that Mr. Fo, whatever his failings, probably does not deserve quite such a tidy dismissal.  But the author’s point was, and remains, valid:  Why give the time of day to an institution that blessed Sully Prudhomme while mooning Rilke?

    So. Let’s imagine the perfect prize.  One in which all wrongs are made right. Nabokov is there, sticking out his tongue at Borges who turns a beatific blind eye. Theodor Dreiser is there too, wondering what became of his less gifted compatriot, Sinclair Lewis, no where to be found, while the patrician Henry James transcends concern about either. Ibsen occupies the seat never comfortable to the backside of José Echegaray y Eizaguirre. Philip long ago joined Joseph to become the second Roth on the list.  There is a formidable contingent of African writers, Asian writers, masters of Urdu and Farci.  It occurs to no one to remark of the women on the list what number they were.

    Now, for just a moment, try to see through this hypothetical haze of righteousness. How much fun would such a prize actually be?  In fact, could such a prize serve any purpose at all?  A prize is the denouement of a game, and if all the players are shew-ins, why bother. Games are one of the ways we try to get at life, condense it, turn it over in our hands, searching for some sense to our chance-ridden and often absurd shlep and dash towards death. Of life we know this: sometimes the best person wins, sometimes the cad. Or the rogue. There must be a phrase in every language for “didn’t see that one coming,” or “so, its come to this…”  If caprice didn’t in some way underwrite our games, no one would play, because no one would believe them.  The three R’s, reason, reliability, and rectitude, are never interesting.  Far more important to us is verisimilitude. Hence the jokers, the handicaps, the dice.  The Nobel Prize accrues meaning precisely because of the Committee’s hundred and ten year old reputation for capriciousness. Thomas Mann’s award perplexes no one.  That Robert Musil did not win throws Mann’s win into sharp relief.  Why honor the one vision of the decline of pre-World Wars Europe and not the other?  Like the whims of Yahweh, it’s the very arbitrariness of how the honors fall that lends the Nobel its fascinating weight, and keeps our mouths agape.

    Last month Anthony Tomasini, music critic for the New York Times, ran a series of articles about the great composers, culminating in his list of the top ten composers of all time.  It was a ludicrous enterprise, as even he admitted.  Not really worth anything with regards to furthering the causes of the chosen.  Bach needs no defenders.  But for weeks now my partner, Sam, has been spitting like a goose because Haydn didn’t make the cut. “How could he not include Haydn? He only invented every musical form we recognize!” For me, his list showed epochism – no one before Bach, no Machaut or Josquin de Prez. And so, in our household at least, Tomasini’s list accomplished its purpose.  It riled us, got us thinking about our own lists, compelled us to formulate clearly what is important to us, what our values are, and thereby to know ourselves a little better.  The Nobel Prize serves the same purpose.  What good would it do if it only ever honored the unarguables and didn’t occasionally get our goats and make us talk to each other?  If Pearl Buck was not a laureate, we would have to make her one.