Nilanjana S Roy
The Nobel Prize for Literature has a curious track record. The Swedish Academy, the body that awards the Prize, guards its privacy fiercely, and unlike the Booker, one is seldom treated to the spectacle of judges airing their disagreements in public. Gossip does, eventually, leak out, but it’s usually fifty years old and by then, nobody really cares.
Last week, Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, rocked that particular boat by implying that American writers weren’t good enough for the Nobel. The US was “too isolated, too insular”. Its writers didn’t translate well, didn’t participate in the “big dialogue of literature”, and besides, Europe was still the centre of the literary world.
Engdahl isn’t making any friends among the Americans, nor among those of us in this corner of the world who’d put our money on Philip Roth or Don deLillo to win this year’s laurels.
The idea that contemporary American writing needs to be defended from the charge of insularity would be laughable if it wasn’t so puzzling. Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy and Don deLillo, to name just three of today’s greatest writers, often write about America and Americans, but I haven’t seen that many European writers situate their characters in Chile or Burkina Faso lately. To call Roth or deLillo or a writer like the late Flannery O’Connor “insular” is ridiculous: their work is of universal appeal and in some cases, perhaps even of timeless appeal.
But Engdahl is echoing an older prejudice in his deeply-rooted conviction that Europe is the centre and the cradle of literature. When William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, the secretary of the Academy was Gustav Hellstrom. This is how he introduced Faulkner: “William Faulkner is essentially a regional writer, and as such reminds Swedish readers now and then of two of our own most important novelists, Selma Lagerlöf and Hjalmar Bergman. Faulkner’s Värmland is the northern part of the state of Mississippi and his Vadköping is called Jefferson…”
Perhaps in 1949, it was still the norm for the Academy’s secretary to take it for granted that he was addressing a chiefly European audience, and that any non-European writer would need to be placed in a European context for the benefit of this audience. But almost 60 years after 1949, is Engdahl’s assumption that Europe is still the centre of literature even remotely true? And is his assumption that American literature is “insular”—a charge levelled most recently against a certain kind of English and French novel—based only on an unthinking condescension?
The Nobel Prize has evolved slowly over the years. Many of the writers who won the Prize in its first three decades were European, and many of them are rarely read today. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Prize grew steadily more international; by the 1980s and 1990s, it was often so insistent on picking writers from less well-known literatures that it landed the hapless reading public with laureates whose works proved to be impenetrably obscure.
I enjoy reading the odds at Ladbrokes, because the bookies’ have an admirable sense of how to judge the reputations of great writers. After Engdahl’s pronouncements, Ladbrokes rated Claude Magris and the Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis as favourites to win. Forgive me for suppressing a sigh: I have plebian tastes, and while I respect Magris’ intellect, he is not a writer who sets my pulse racing. Adonis is one of the world’s best-loved poets, but his poetry can lurch from the truly sublime to the determinedly banal. It’s disheartening to see their names at the top of the chart when the likes of Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes lurk much lower down.
If you look at the rest of Ladbrokes’ list, it’s hard to justify Engdahl’s other claim, that Europe remains the centre of literature. The list includes writers as diverse as A B Yehoshua, Amos Oz, David Malouf, Vasselis Aleksakis. Modern literature has no great respect for the idea of a defining centre. There are clusters of writers; one admittedly in Europe, but increasingly to the periphery rather than the centre of Europe, and one in North America. There are few writers from South America or Russia, and a growing contingent from China, Japan and Australasia.
The periphery holds as much excitement as Engdahl’s imagined centre — perhaps more. It’s harder, too, to claim a writer as strictly European, Asian or American: many of the writers seen as Nobel favourites have lived in different places and are used to inhabiting a wide range of identities. Regardless of who is crowned the Nobel laureate this October 9, if Engdahl’s ill-considered words spur more readers to investigate the margins, to look harder at writers who step out of the comfortable confines of “national literatures”, he may have done some good.
6 months ago