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  • The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature: My Shortlist

    Bloopers loves books so much!


    A few years ago I mentioned to a good friend of mine who is a writer that I have never read Midnight’s Children. He didn’t say anything, but it was the kind of not-saying-anything with beats to it. I would say a full eight bars. “I’ve been meaning read it,” I assured him, as his silence began a second phrase, “I just haven’t gotten to it yet.”

    Like most readers, I hold in mind a list of books I’ve been meaning to read. It’s a list which includes books I almost certainly will actually read, but also others, many others, which, to the end, I will only ever mean to read. Which is to say, my list is a hedge against mortality. Such lists always are. It is defensive in other ways too: to say I mean to read a certain book – Emma, for instance – salves the moral sting of not having read it. That it is an ever-expanding list paradoxically marks the rise in my sins of omission while shoring up my sense of rectitude; surely knowing what I lack mitigates the lacking.

    Though equally unread, not all books I mean to read are equal; some glower from a higher shelf – it seems correct to say that my not having read Don Quixote is a more serious omission than not having read Midnight’s Children – while others have partisans. For example, I distinctly hear Harold Bloom Jewish mothering me for allowing my Shakespeare read-through to stall after Richard III. (“If you can bear living without the poetry of Romeo and Juliet, well then go right ahead. Who am I to say? Clearly nobody ‘t all.” “But Harold. I read it in high school. And I’ve seen the Zeffirelli, and even Leonardo DiCaprio.” “I’m just saying.”) Susan Sontag has been hectoring me from beyond the grave to read The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. You know, the 19th century Brazilian novelist. My friend Nathan is concerned that I haven’t read more of the daftly brilliant little novels of César Aira. I, absolutely, mean to read them all. Pax, everyone.

    In the wake of Nadine Gordimer’s death, my failure to have read Midnight’s Children began to afflict me, like a cramp, or hunger. As I sifted through material about her, Rushdie’s name kept popping up. As would be expected, she had been among his defenders during the years of the fatwa. In her Nobel lecture, she asserted that “he has done for the postcolonial consciousness in Europe what Günter Grass did for the post-Nazi one with The Tin Drum and Dog Years, perhaps even has tried to approach what Beckett did for our existential anguish in Waiting For Godot[.]” (Who doesn’t love a healthy flirtation with hyperbole, especially when it may prove to be (a) not a flirtation, or (b) not hyperbole.) In 2005, novels by both Gordimer and Rushdie were among the six nominees for the “Best of the Booker”, a one-time award given for the single best novel to have been awarded a Booker Prize in the award’s forty-year history. Gordimer was represented by The Conservationist, Rushdie by Midnight’s Children. Rushdie won.

    Enough. It was time to leave off meaning to read Midnight’s Children and actually crack the cover. At the time of this writing, I’m about a third of the way through, and can say, unequivocally, it is one of the best thirds of a novel I’ve ever read. I recognize this species of delight; it attended my reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. The Adventures of Augie March also, and, oh yes, A House for Mr. Biswas. The sheer vigor and complexity of this third-of-a-novel disposes me to make a chain of assumptions: 1. that the second two thirds will match the first, 2. that, as expert testimony has it, The Satanic Verses at the very least equals it, and, 3. that the rest of Rushdie’s oeuvre, if not, perhaps, on the same Parnassian level, bears similar markings of genius. All of which leads me to wonder about the hold-up in Stockholm.

    There is, to be sure, a logjam of great writers waiting to be laureled. But, as time slips by and Rushdie remains uninvited to Stockholm’s annual highbrow powwow, the Swedish Academy comes ever closer to committing another of its stinkers. There will be much to answer for if they allow him to go the way of Carlos Fuentes, W. G. Sebald, Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Woolf. Perhaps he is on their own list –of writers they are meaning to honor.



    In addition to Salman Rushdie, my 2014 shortlist of Nobelable writers includes three other novelists and a poet. A more stunning group of writers you will never find. Read these experts. Listen, as you read, to how the grief and splendor of living rushes from their words in a spiritual torrent which would wash most of us away if channeled through our own faculties. Listen to how Algerian novelist Assia Djebar evokes the inner life of a “woman of the veil” who has just learned that her husband, a rebel in the Algerian War for Independence, is in grave danger, and chooses to surmount all the prohibitions of her society in order to find and warn him. Australian poet Les Murray is famously querulous, but listen to how in “A Dog’s Elegy” he grows tender, wittily mystical, disarming with image and verbal delight his reader’s defenses against the enormity of death. Listen carefully to Péter Nádas‘s narrator – young, bisexual, Hungarian, hyper-aware – and you’ll hear, in his account of learning to communicate with a young German poet with whom he is in love, the catastrophe of modern Hungary. Listen to Philip Roth, the American perennial, in one of his sublime rants which, as always with him, transcends that descriptor by saying something so heartbreakingly true about human nature that, for all it’s clattering expansiveness, it comes off like Shakespeare. And Salman Rushdie. Listen to him. Am I wrong?


    “Small things come in big packages.” —Assia Djebar (b. 1936)

    1. Assia Djebar (Algeria)

    She’d forgotten the danger itself. In truth, it’s perhaps not that which drove her, but rather a gnawing desire to suddenly know whether she could really spend her life waiting in her room, in patience and love. That’s why she crossed the entire town, bared her presence to so many hostile eyes, and at the end of her trek discovered that she was not only a prey for the curiosity of men — a passing shape, the mystery of the veil accosted by the first glance, a fascinating weakness that ends up being hated and spat upon — no, she now knows that she existed. She’s been inhabited by one inflexible thought that has made her untouchable. “Get to Youssef! He’s in danger,” she had repeated. “But is he, really?” she ended up wondering when she found herself alone on the curb surrendering to, or even beyond, the same fruitless waiting. “Won’t he first of all be shocked to see me here, out in the street?” No, the danger is real.

    (Children of the New World)


    ”Some people are born to fatness. Others have to get there.” —Les Murray (b. 1938)

    2. Les Murray (Australia)

    A Dog’s Elegy

    The civil white-pawed dog who’d strain
    to make speech-like sounds to his humans
    lies buried in the soil of a slope
    that he’d tear down on his barking runs.

    He hated thunder and gunshot
    and would charge off to restrain them.
    A city dog too alive for backyards,
    we took him from the pound’s Green Dream

    but now his human name melts off him;
    he’ll rise to chase fruit bats and bees;
    the coral tree and the African tulip
    will take him up, and the prickly tea trees.

    Our longhaired cat who mistook him
    for an Alsatian flew up there full tilt
    and teetered in top twigs for eight days
    as a cloud, distilling water with its pelt.

    The cattle suspect the Dog lives
    but three kangaroos stood in our pasture
    this daybreak, for the first time in memory,
    eared gazing wigwams of fur.

    (Conscious and Verbal)


    “By fantasizing one builds a more predictable world, and then one has no time to notice what is really happening, because of the din made by one’s expectations crashing down.” — Péter Nádas (b. 1942)

    3. Péter Nádas (Hungary)

    But as he listened to me, a radically different process was also taking place in him: as usual, he kept correcting my grammatically faulty sentences, he did this almost unawares, it had become an unconscious habit between us; in fact, he was the one who shaped my sentences, gave them the proper structure, incorporated them into the neat order of his native language, I had to rely on his expropriated sentences to work my way through my linguistic rubble, had to use his sentences to tell my story, and didn’t even notice that some of these jointly produced sentences were repeated two or three times, their place and value reshuffled, before reaching intelligible form.

    It was as if I had to use my own past to coax the story of his past out of him. I didn’t think of it then, but now I believe we needed these evening walks not just for the exercise but to relate to the world around us — which we both felt, though for different reasons, to be cheerless and alien — and to do it in a way that this same world would not be aware of what we were doing.

    (A Book of Memories)


    “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.” —Philip Roth (b. 1933)

    4. Philip Roth (United States)

    You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home and tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.

    (American Pastoral)


    salman rushdie
    “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” —Salman Rushdie (b. 1947)

    5. Salman Rushdie (Great Britain)

    Why had she married him?—For solace, for children, But at first the insomnia coating her brain got in the way of her first aim; and children don’t always come at once. So Amina had found herself dreaming about an undreamable poet’s face and waking with an unspeakable name on her lips. You ask: what did she do about it? I answer: she gritted her teeth and set about putting herself straight. This is what she told herself: “You big ungrateful goof, can’t you see who is your husband now? Don’t you know what a husband deserves?” To avoid fruitless controversy about the answers to these questions, let me say that, in my mother’s opinion, a husband deserved unquestioning loyalty, and unreserved, full-hearted love. But there was a difficulty: Amina, her mind clogged up with Nadir Khan and his insomnia, found she couldn’t naturally provide Ahmed Sinai with these things. And so, bringing her gift of assiduity to bear, she began to train herself to love him. To do this she divided him, mentally, into every single one of his component parts, physical as well as behavioral, compartmentalizing him into lips and verbal tics and prejudices and likes…in short, she fell under the spell of the perforated sheet of her own parents, because she resolved to fall in love with her husband bit by bit.

    (Midnight’s Children)


    The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded soon. Share with us, here at The Shelf: Who do you think will win? (My bets are on Assia Djebar this year.) Who do you think should win?

  • 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature — My Shortlist

    imageSocieties in which arranged marriages are still prevalent must wonder what all the brouhaha was about when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. In some quarters (China) his win was celebrated as if he was a conquering hero on the order of, say, Genghis Kahn. Others, of which yours truly is one, felt his win to indicate, if not actual malignancy at work in the universe, then at least mindless absurdity at work in Stockholm, not least because of his slapdash writing. But societies with arranged marriages must view all this backing and forthing as a curious instance of democratic vanity. In such societies, families pair off boys and girls for marriage, often very early in life, at some point the boy and girl are told of the arrangement, and that is the end of it until the wedding day, unless, as in some cultures, the wedding day is the day of revelation. The pair is either happy about it or not, much to the indifference of those who’ve chosen for them. For it to work – and in many places it has long worked rather well – there must be a broad-based acceptance of a cosmos in which things are given or taken without much regard for the wishes or agency of the ones receiving or yielding. It’s only when love, a human universal, turns to regard itself, and in doing so steps beyond its provenance in the body to style itself as a compelling thought process capable of making vital decisions that people begin to get touchy about who’s being foisted on them.

    People who direct their love towards books tend to become deeply attached to certain authors. For such counterculturists, the Nobel Prize can feel rather barbaric. Like an arranged marriage. Once we’ve been handed our winner – because it does feel somehow like a bestowal – our feelings about Stockholm’s choice, approval or dismay, become more at issue than the choice itself. In other words, it becomes all about us.

    In about a week that famous secular conclave will meet to decide who to shack us up with this year. Busybody pundits are giving themselves little orgasms asking who, or what kind of writer, it will be. Will it be a captivating storyteller who ravishes her readers with a gorgeously over-stuffed vision of humanity, someone in the line of, say José Saramago or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or will it be someone whose rewards are cloistered behind a wall of aesthetic that will keep him a rather arcane fetish for a few, someone akin to Claude Simon or Samuel Beckett? Will it be a curiosity, like Dario Fo, or a well known literary force, e.g. Saul Bellow? Another bony Eastern European to join Herta Müller, or a non-colonial African to keep Wole Soyinka company? Will the political objective driving the choice be baldfaced, as with Orhan Pamuk, or restrained, as with Tomas Tranströmer? Male or female? Novelist? Poet? Playwright?  Someone uncharacteristically category-defying?

    These questions, while entertaining, are really of only passing interest, in the end not much different than church basement gossip. The real question, or the only one that matters to any of us inclined to take an interest, is whether or not when we lift the veil and gaze upon who has been chosen for our regard, we find the face lovely or dispiriting.

    Here is a list of five authors I would be more than happy to live with should Stockholm choose them. There are, of course, many others. Philip Roth and Alice Munro don’t appear on my list this year even though I would probably pee myself if either of them made the cut. But they’ve been on my short list for the past two years, and I decided to only put forth candidates who I’ve not put forth before. I would be fascinated if either Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Algeria’s Assia Djebar won, and am eager to get to know their work, but on this list you’ll find only writers I’ve actually read. The Nobel literature prize is always geopolitically interesting: On my list this year, two are Hungarian, one is Australian, one Irish, one Spanish. I’m struck that all my choices are men, and all fiction writers. Call my list one-sided, but these guys are all as good as it gets. I’ve listed them alphabetically because if I were to rank them in order of who I most want to win, they’d all have to pile into a rather ill-suited cluster in the first spot. Along with their names, I offer you a passage from each of their bodies of work. You decide who you would choose. I’m sure I can’t.


    imageLászló Krasznahorkai (Hungary)

    Rubbish. Everywhere he looked the roads and pavements were covered with a seamless, chinkless armour of detritus and this supernaturally glimmering river of waste, trodden into pulp and frozen into a solid mass by the piercing cold, wound away into the distant twilight greyness. Apple cores, bits of old boots, watch-straps, overcoat buttons, rusted keys, everything, he cooly noted, that man may leave his mark by was here, though it wasn’t so much this ‘icy museum of pointless existence’ that astonished him (for there was nothing remotely new about the particular range of exhibits), but the way this slippery mass snaking between the houses, like a pale reflection of the sky, illuminated everything with its unearthly, dull, silvery phosphorescence.The awareness of where he was exercised an increasingly sobering effect on him—he had by no means lost his capacity for calm appraisal—and as he continued to appraise, as if from a considerable eminence, the monstrous labyrinth of filth, he grew ever more certain that, since his ‘fellow human beings’ had utterly failed to notice this flawless and monumental embodiment of doom, it was pointless talking about a ‘sense of community’. It was, after all, as if the earth had opened up beneath him, revealing what lay underneath the town, or, and he tapped the pavement with his stick, as if some terrible putrescent marsh had seeped through the asphalt to cover everything.

    from: The Melancholy of Resistance

    imageJavier Marias (Spain)

    “People used to venerate them or at least their memory, and they would go and visit their graves with flowers, and their portraits would preside over their homes,” I thought, “people spent a period in mourning and everything stopped for awhile or slowed down, the death of someone affected the whole of life, the dead person really did take with them a part of the lives of their loved ones and, consequently, there wasn’t such a separation between the two states, they were related and they were less frightening. Now people forget the dead as if the dead were plague victims, sometimes they use them as shields or dunghills in order to blame them and make them responsible for the terrible situation in which they have left us, often they are loathed or they receive only acrimony and reproaches from their heirs, they departed too soon or too late without preparing the ground for us or without leaving us free, they continue being names but not faces, names to which all manner of villainies and cowardices and horrors are imputed, that’s the current tendency, and thus they do not find rest even in oblivion.”

    from: Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me

    imageGerald Murnane (Australia)

    “On that day it appeared that the whole state was alight. At midday, in many places, it was dark as night. Seventy-one lives were lost.” The previous sentences are from a report of a royal commission that followed the bushfires of January, 1939, in the state of Victoria. The day when the bushfires were at there worst was known afterwards as Black Friday. By chance, it was the day when my youngest aunt left the convent that would have overlooked, among much else, the paddock whereon would be lain down fifteen years later a certain street beside which would be built twelve years later again the house in which my aunt’s oldest nephew would live for at least forty years and would write books of fiction, one of the last of which would include a passage in which the narrator, who was wholly lacking in imagination, would report mere details in the hope that fiction truly was, as someone once claimed, the art of suggestion and that some at least of his readers might intuit or divine or suppose, if not imagine, some little of what his aunt had seen or felt on the day when she left the convent where she had hoped to live for the rest of her life.

    from: Barley Patch

    imagePéter Nádas (Hungary)

    A shipwrecked person whose feet desperately seek something solid to keep him afloat will grab at anything, anyone, the first available object, and if it buoys him up he won’t let it go, he’ll swim with it,and after a time he’ll see he has nothing else! just this? and the object will grimly concur, yes, just this, nothing else! and the implacable impulse of self-preservation, joined of course by rationalization and mystification, will have him believe that the object that drifted his way by chance was really his, it chose him and he chose it, and by the time the sheer force of unrelenting waves casts him onto the shore of mature adulthood, his faith and gratitude will have made him worship what was accidental and adore fortuity, but can his rescue from destruction be really accidental?

    from: A Book of Memories

    imageWilliam Trevor (Ireland)

    Growing up in the listless nineteen-eighties, Celia Normanton knew her father well, her mother not at all. Mr. Normanton was handsome and tall, with steely gray hair brushed carefully every day so that it was as he wished it to be. His shirts and suits gave the impression of being part of him, as his house in Buckingham Street did, and the family business that bore his name. Only Mr. Normanton’s profound melancholy was entirely his own. It was said by people who knew him well that melancholy had not always been his governing possession, that once upon a time he had been carefree and a little wild, that the loss of his wife – not to the cruelty of an early death but to her preference for another man – had left him wounded in a way that was irreparable.

    from: “The Women”