Roving thoughts and provocations

  • Email
  • Print
  • Comments

What’s Wrong With the Nobel Prize in Literature

So the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer wins the Nobel prize for literature. Aside from a couple of long poems available on the net, I haven’t read Tranströmer, yet I feel sure this is a healthy decision in every way. Above all for the Nobel jury. Let me explain.

There are eighteen of them, members of an organization called the Swedish Academy, which back at the end of the 19th century was given the task of awarding the Nobel. At the time two members suggested it was a mistake to accept the job. The Academy’s founding brief, back in 1786, was to promote the “purity, strength, and sublimity of the Swedish language”. Was this compatible with choosing the finest oeuvre of “an idealistic tendency” from anywhere in the world?

All members are Swedish and most of them hold full time professorial jobs in Swedish universities. On the present jury there are just five women and no woman has ever held the presidency. Only one member was born after 1960. This is partly because you cannot resign from the Academy. It’s a life sentence. So there’s rarely any new blood. For the past few years, however, two members have refused to cooperate with deliberations for the prize because of previous disagreements, one over the reaction, or lack of it, to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the other over awarding the prize to Elfriede Jelinek, whom he felt was “chaotic and pornographic.”

How do these people decide who are the greatest novelists and/or poets of the day on the international scene? They call on scores of literary experts in scores of countries and pay them to put down a few reflections about possible winners. Such experts are supposed to remain anonymous, but inevitably some have turned out to be acquaintances of those they have nominated.

Let’s try to imagine how much reading is involved. Assume that a hundred writers are nominated every year—it’s not unthinkable—of whom the jury presumably try to read at least one book. But this is a prize that goes to the whole oeuvre of a writer, so let’s suppose that as they hone down the number of candidates they now read two books of those who remain, then three, then four. It’s not unlikely that each year they are faced with reading two hundred books (this on top of their ordinary workloads). Of these books very few will be written in Swedish and only some will be available in Swedish translation; many will be in English, or available in English translation. But since the English and Americans notoriously don’t translate a great deal, some reading will have to be done in French, German or perhaps Spanish translations from more exotic originals.

Remember that we’re talking about poems as well as novels and they’re coming from all over the world, many intensely engaged with cultures and literary traditions of which the members of the Swedish Academy understandably know little. So it’s a heterogeneous and taxing bunch of books these professors have to digest and compare, every year. Responding recently to criticism that in the last ten years seven prizes have gone to Europeans, Peter Englund, the president of the current jury, claimed its members were well equipped for English but concerned about their strengths in such languages as Indonesian. Fair enough.

Let’s pause for a moment, here, and imagine our Swedish professors, called to uphold the purity of the Swedish language, as they compare a poet from Indonesia, perhaps translated into English with a novelist from Cameroon, perhaps available only in French, and another who writes in Afrikaans but is published in German and Dutch and then a towering celebrity like Philip Roth, who they could of course read in English, but might equally feel tempted, if only out of a sense of exhaustion, to look at in Swedish.

Do we envy them this task? Does it make much sense? The two members who a century ago felt the cup should be allowed to pass from them were worried that the Academy would become “a cosmopolitan tribunal of literature”. Something they instinctively felt was problematic. They were not wrong.

Now, let’s imagine that we have been condemned for life to making, year in year out a burdensome and near impossible decision to which the world increasingly and inexplicably ascribes a crazy importance. How do we go about it? We look for some simple, rapid and broadly acceptable criteria that will help us get this pain out of the way. And since, as Borges himself noted, aesthetics are difficult and require a special sensibility and long reflection, while political affiliations are easier and quickly grasped, we begin to identify those areas of the world that have grabbed public attention, perhaps because of political turmoil or abuses of human rights, we find those authors who have already won a huge level of respect and possibly major prizes in the literary communities of these countries and who are outspokenly committed on the right side of whatever political divide we’re talking about, and we select them. So we have the period when the prize went to Eastern block dissidents, or to South American writers against dictatorship, or South African writers against apartheid, or, most amazingly, to the anti-Berlusconi playwright Dario Fo whose victory caused some bewilderment in Italy.

It was an honorable enough formula but alas not every trouble spot boasts its great dissident writer (Tibet, Cechnya), to which we might add that since the prize is perceived as going to the country as much as to the writer, it’s not possible to give it to writers from the same trouble spot two years running. What a conundrum!

Sometimes the jury clearly got their hands burned. Having received so many major literary prizes in Germany and Austria, the left-wing feminist Jelinek seemed a safe choice. But her work is ferocious, often quite indigestible (she’d never win a literary prize in say, Italy or England) and the novel Greed, in particular, which appeared shortly before the prize was awarded, was truly unreadable. I know because I tried, and tried again. Had the members of the jury really read it? You have to wonder. Not surprisingly, after the controversy that winner caused they fell back on obvious choices for a while: Pinter, politically appropriate and half forgotten; Vargas Llosa who I somehow imagined had already won the prize many years before.

What a relief then from time to time to say, the hell with it and give it to a Swede, in this case the octogenarian acknowledged as his nation’s finest living poet and a man whose whole oeuvre, as Peter Englund charmingly remarks, could fit into a single slim paperback. A winner, in short, whom the whole jury can read in the original pure Swedish in just a few hours. Perhaps they needed a sabbatical. Not to mention the detail, not irrelevant in these times of crisis, that the $1.5-million-dollar prize will stay in Sweden.

But most healthy of all, a decision like this, which we all understand would never have been taken by say, an American jury, or a Nigerian jury, or perhaps above all a Norwegian jury, reminds us of the essential silliness of the prize and our own foolishness at taking it seriously. Eighteen (or sixteen) Swedish nationals will have a certain credibility when weighing up works of Swedish literature, but what group could ever really get its mind round the infinitely varied work of scores of different traditions. And why should we ask them to do that?

  • Email
  • Print
  • Comments

Please note that all comments are read by a moderator prior to approval. Comments posted using real names, rather than pseudonyms, will have a better chance of being approved. Abusive, repetitive, or incoherent comments will be deleted.