(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.
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