The BS Column: The unbearable heaviness of the Nobel


(Published in the Business Standard, 12 October 2009)

Herta Müller, the new Nobel laureate in literature, has been a fierce critic of Ceauşescu’s regime in Romania. She is highly regarded in Europe’s academic circles. She had received over 20 literary awards, including the IMPAC, before winning the Nobel this year. And I must confess an unliterary complaint: having read only two of her books, The Land of Green Plums and The Appointment, I have about as much enthusiasm for reading her as I do for swimming through a pool of cold porridge.

The Nobel Prize in literature is administered by the Swedish Academy, the process of selection is rigorous, and the shortlist of candidates will usually begin at about 25 names and then be whittled down to roughly five, before a winner is chosen. In a recent interview, Per Wästberg, chairman of the Nobel Prize Literature Committee, revealed that an author’s name will often come up for consideration for several years before a nomination finally finds acceptance. All of this is imbued with gravitas; but none of this explains why the Prize should be taken as seriously as it is, except for the fact of its longevity.

The Prize’s track record over the first thirty years of its inception, from 1901 to 1930, was dubious at best, with a smattering of the Yeatses, Kiplings and Shaws making up for a score of now-forgotten writers (Mommsen, Hamsun, Spitteler—names no longer read, even in their home countries). It redeemed itself somewhat between the 1940s and the 1980s, yielding at least a reasonable reading list of authors whose works have endured the passage of time. In the last two decades, the Prize seems determined to make political points and to shine a light on the obscure.

An uncharitable critic might detect the undertow of an anxiety that Europe might be losing its influence, that the great writers who are undiscovered by the British, the Americans (and a handful of Indians) will sink into obscurity, taking part of the history of Europe with them. What else might explain recent awards to Imre Kertesz, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, Elfriede Jelinek and now Herta Müller? And there’s a sense of drift with some other choices: Dario Fo and Doris Lessing, for instance, may have deserved their Nobel nods, but both received the laurel long after their respective works had ceased to exert a once-powerful influence.

It is not that these are writers of no merit: truly bad writers don’t make it to the shortlist. In different ways, Le Clezio, Jelinek, Kertesz and Müller have made their contributions to literature and literary history. Consider this, perhaps, evidence of this critic’s poor taste and judgement, when I say that reading their works has not convinced me that these are writers who will last, or whose works I am astonished and pleased to discover. Perhaps pleasure is a frivolous thing to want from the Nobel Prize; perhaps its august list of writers is prescriptive, a judgement handed down from a great height to us lesser mortals, an injunction to go forth and have our minds improved. It is frivolous to complain, as I do having read two of Müller’s books and all that is available of Le Clezio, Jelinek and Kertesz in translation, that they bring me no enjoyment as a reader. And yet I find that enjoyment is important to me, personally, as a reader, and that in the last two decades, I have had little of that from the Nobel.

The Nobel in literature has now been awarded for over a century; the Man Booker International has made just three awards since 2005. The Nobel is administered by the venerable academicians of the Swedish Academy, a committee that rarely changes the composition of its members. The Man Booker International has a shifting list of judges, chosen from among contemporary writers every award season: it is peer-driven, with all the benefits and faults this entails. The first of its three awards went to Ismail Kadare, whose works found a new and newly loyal readership; the second to Chinua Achebe, opening up his work to readers who were beginning to forget him, and the culture he came from; and the third to Alice Munro, establishing the worth of the short story as a literary genre in its own right.

If the Man Booker continues in this vein, it will outstrip an increasingly insular Nobel literature award in the next decade as the prize to watch. Until we get there, though, I have to locate and find the remaining works of Herta Müller. Perhaps reading her will be a voyage of discovery and wonder, but I suspect this will be more like trying to read the Wodehouse-created authoress so admired by Bertie Wooster, Lady Florence Craye, author of Spindrift. That book, says Wooster, went down “like ham and eggs with the boys with the bulging foreheads round Bloomsbury way”, but he, like this critic, had a plebeian soul and remained unmoved by her craft.

11 comments

  1. Superb article! I really enjoyed that! While one agrees, a bit grudgingly, that the sole purpose of literature cannot be entertainment, one does so wish that the mere fact of being entertaining or even easily digested would not disqualify authors from distinction at the Nobel wards. Wow! That was a mouthful of words for me. What I wanted to say was that I wish the berks who award the nobel would award it to someone less joyless. Hats off to your exemplary courage in actually wading through Herta's stuff.

  2. great post. a timely takedown of the Litt Nobel. i think you're right about the Man Booker Intl and as for provocative new writing that is also enjoyable why the plain Man Booker takes the prize…

  3. I don't know. I remain grateful to the Nobel for helping me discover Kertesz, and I'm curious to see how Muller turns out. By contrast, the Man Booker International does little for me – all three of those writers were people whose work I was already familiar with. I'm happy they won the prize and agree wholeheartedly that they deserve it, but it isn't widening my horizons. So while I'd be happy if the Nobel got a little less euro-centric, I'd prefer it if they stuck to finding people I'd never heard of. And I don't know why gravitas is incompatible with enjoyment. No one would argue that Kertesz is frivolous or light, but that doesn't make his books (at least the good ones) less thrilling. I personally thought Fatelessness (which I've only read in the 2004 translation – one more gift of the Nobel) was captivating.

  4. Nila: I prefer non-fiction but have made some exceptions. In English, French, German, Hindi and Marathi. Sometimes both the original and the translation. My hypothesis is that one of the reasons for Herta Mueller's works appearing dreary could be the translation. German is a precise language and translations into English, with its imprecise vocabulary would invariably lose some of the meaning. Of course I have not read her works in German or in English but it is worth asking those who straddle both languages to comment upon this.

  5. On the whole, well said. But with some nits.Hamsun was an important figure until World War II, when his Nazi collaboration made him fall out of favour (a circumstance the Nobel committee couldn't have predicted) — so it may be a bit unfair to consider him a Nobel mistake. Recent Nobels (in this millennium) have gone to Naipaul, Coetzee, Pinter and Pamuk in addition to the ones you mention — so half of the prizes aren't very obscure, though some may have indeed have been partially politically motivated.Meanwhile, though I haven't read the obscure European names you mention (including this year's awardee), I did discover the 1996 winner Wisława Szymborska thanks to some friends, and I find her poetry very enjoyable and rewarding.

  6. Thanks, Narendra, nice to see you here.Falstaff: gravitas isn't incompatible with enjoyment in all cases–think of Gunter Grass or Camus, for instance. My argument is simply that these writers didn't work for me, and I suspect my kind of reader; it's a matter of personal taste.Kertesz, for instance; I enjoyed Kaddish for a Child Not Born, but would say that it didn't really break new ground for me. In different ways, I lean more towards writers like Primo Levi, or Paul Celan, and I didn't feel a sense of discovery when I read Kertesz–or Gao Xinjian, for that matter.I think there's a fine line between bringing to light brilliant and lasting work by writers who have been drowned out by the noise of the marketplace, and fetishising obscurity. I'd say the Nobel does the latter far too often.You're better read than most, but I do know of many readers who were delighted to be introduced to all three of the Man Booker winners. Alice Munro is probably the most widely read author today; Achebe was far more popular (and far more available) a decade ago; and for many, Kadare was an unknown name before he received that prize. I'd maintain that the Man Booker so far has worked better, with their choices being carefully reasoned out and not necessarily driven by current popularity. The Nobel, with such a long list of talent to choose from, has little excuse for foisting some of its more deliberately opaque choices on us.

  7. @Shefaly: I'd be interested in that perspective, but again, a large percentage of lit laureates are translated, and it hasn't hurt their work. Always a possibility, though.@Rahul: You're on to something with the poetry–the Nobel's track record with selecting great poets has been solidly brilliant, and I look forward to years when a poet gets the nod. About the obscurity, think of it this way: given the pool of talent the Nobel committee has to work with, can they really defend such a relatively high proportion of obscure choices? They've made some great picks over the years, but I would say that's to be expected–again, given the pool of talent they have. Think of it this way. Jelinek versus Amos Oz, Muller versus Philip Roth, Gao Xinjian versus Murakami–it's no contest in each individual case, and I'm naming names at random here. The Nobel's mandate is, definitely, to move away from the biases of the marketplace, but how well do they do this?

  8. Nilanjana: Part of my point is that personal taste is just that – personal taste. You may find Kertesz less enjoyable than Camus or not feel a sense of discovery, but that's not a judgment I would agree with. Personally, I'd take Kertesz over Levi any day (though admittedly I'd take Celan over both). So to characterize the Nobel's picks as unworthy and needlessly obscurist just because you personally don't happen to like them is unfair. I think the larger point, though, is what the use of the Nobel prize really is. If the Nobel Prize is meant to acknowledge the best living writer out there, then it's true that the choice of Muller over Roth (to use your example) is hard to justify. But personally I've long ago given up on the idea of the Nobel as some sort of acknowledgment of highest literary merit – there are too many issues with the prize (the way it completely overlooks short stories, for instance; or the fact that the committee seems to have completely forgotten about poetry) for that to work. So for me the usefulness of the Nobel is in drawing attention to the work of excellent writers whose work has been largely overlooked by the mainstream, and for that purpose picking Muller over Roth makes a lot of sense.

  9. It's the high proportion of deliberately obscure choices over a century that concerns me, Falstaff. If you read the column, you'd see that I've mentioned no writer who makes it to the shortlist is going to be *desperately* bad. But I'm not the only one out there who thinks the Jelineks and Le Clezios and Xingjians on the list didn't really make the cut, and are disappointing choices for the general reader. (They're a lot less easy to defend than Kertesz–on his writings, I think you and I will have to agree to disagree.)There are, as you rightly say, too many issues with the prize. It overlooks short stories, and has never seen fit to explore genres outside the strictly literary; and the bias against US writers–presumably fuelled by the sense of US domination–is glaring. The Nobel is meant to acknowledge the work of the best living writers out there: "the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction". And even in terms of drawing attention to the work of excellent writers, I would question the worth of what the committee has done. The IMPAC, which is very open to writers in translation, has pointed me in the direction of far more in the way of interesting, under-rated writers than the Nobel. I know you've read many of the names on the Nobel list, but try reading through the Nobel laureates year by year sometime–it's a fascinating experiment, and might make my points more clear. I think we are entitled to call the merits of the prize into question, and to ask whether it's really doing its job as well as it could. My blunt take is it could and should be doing much better, and is beginning to lose its relevance, though not its lustre.

  10. Nilanjana: I guess my problem is that I don't have enough of a sense of how obscure some of the historic choices were when they were made. I've read some of every laureate since 1975 except Aleixandre, Cela and Simon, and with the exception of Lessing, Jelinek and Xingjian I'm quite fond of all of them, and wouldn't say they're needlessly obscure. When we go further back than that, though my reading starts to give way, and I can't really tell whether someone like, say, Lagerkvist was really obscure at the time or is just obscure now. Besides obscurity is such a hard to judge thing anyway. Plenty of people out there may never have heard of Ashbery, though for those of us how follow contemporary poetry he's anything but obscure.I'm not saying we're not entitled to call the merits of the prize into question – it certainly isn't doing its job as well as it could – but to me it would be doing a better job if it stopped limiting itself to European novels and picked obscure poets from Latin America or Asia or obscure short story writers from Africa, rather than if it went with the more obvious US / International novelists.

  11. I think the point is that unlike the science prizes, there is no objective criterion for the literature prizes. In the science cases, the awards are almost always richly deserved and sometimes long overdue; what little controversy there is generally relates to omitting a deserving candidate because of the "three people per award" restriction. In almost all cases, it is work that influenced the whole field, perhaps created a new field. There is no controversy about the importance of determining ribosome structures or understanding telomere maintenance. In literature, on the other hand, the very fact that you two (Nilanjana, who is one of the best Indian writers around, and Falstaff, who is clearly well read) can disagree on Kertesz shows that it is not possible to please everyone. So where the science awards try to reward game-changing players, the literature and peace awards (and, to some extent, the economics award) try to influence the game.

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