Jump and Other Stories
Playing the Game
In the 1970s I had lunch one memorable day with the French novelist Nathalie Sarraute. It was a year or two after Samuel Beckett had been awarded the Nobel Prize. I knew that Mme. Sarraute had known Beckett since before the war, and I brought up his name in the not very honorable hope of hearing some gossip about the great man. When I mentioned the prize, Mme. Sarraute said, Yes, in Paris we say he deserved it. Though her English is fluent, I assumed this somewhat peculiar phrase was a Gallicism, and I merely nodded solemnly in agreement. What I did not know, however, was that there had been a serious falling out between the two writers. Immediately, this kindly and most gentle of women flashed at me a sour look and with what for her was almost harshness said, No, we say: he deserved it.
Is the Nobel laurel wreath a fitting recognition of a great artist, or merely the international establishment’s way of turning a living writer into a monument? The prize committee has made some strange choices in the past, and there have been even stranger omissions: Joyce, Nabokov, Borges, Greene…. Of these four, Graham Greene would have seemed the most suitable candidate, since much of his work is set along that shifting boundary where literature and politics meet uneasily. The committee has always appeared distinctly chary of anything that smacks of art for art’s sake, preferring its literature well salted with political or social concerns; in this it is at one with most Western liberal intellectuals, who tend to have a bad conscience when it comes to literature—fiction especially—confusing as they do the ethical with the moral, expecting not works of art but handbooks on how to live.
If Nadine Gordimer had not existed she would have had to be invented. She is the ideal Nobel laureate for these times: an Olympian yet totally “committed” writer with ten novels and countless short stories to her credit; a white South African who has spent a lifetime fighting apartheid; a member of the ANC; and, as an added bonus, a woman. That the gentlemen in Stockholm, as Beckett restrainedly called them, should have waited until this year to give her the prize is a testament less to their acuity than to their caution. She should have had it years ago. She richly deserves it.
If there is a touch of Sarrauthian harshness here, it is because I have always had reservations about Nadine Gordimer’s work. There are some novels which are important but which have scant artistic value, and there are novels which are artistically successful and supremely unimportant, in the political sense. In the former category one thinks of 1984, in the latter, Lolita. Like all such distinctions, this one is clumsy, and much too dependent on personal taste to be of any real critical moment, and many great books (Mann’s Doctor Faustus, for instance) will elude its categorizations. All …