This week marks the start of the Nobel Prize season. I used to be extremely fascinated by the Nobel Prizes when I was younger, and always wondered what the winners in the various categories--physiology or medicine, chemistry, physics, literature, peace, and economics--had achieved to earn such a prestigious honor, and though my fascination has waned, residual interest in the Prizes overall persists. For example, today's winners for the Physiology or Medicine Prize discovered helicobacter pylori, the corkscrew-like bacterium that is the chief co-factor in stomach and intestinal ulcers. Some years ago, after I'd first read about their discovery in the newspaper and then a few days later in a magazine, I asked my mother, who was suffering from an ulcer and who works in the medical field, if she'd heard about the new treatment. She hadn't, but proposed it to her doctor, and she was soon cured of her ulcer. I thought it was such a simple, but revolutionary discovery, and testimony to what scientic inquiry, at its best, can achieve. Yet over the years, and increasingly in the last fifteen years, I've found that the chemistry and physics discoveries were, after the blurb and a paragraph or so of description, often too complex, sometimes verging on incomprehensible. (The femtochemistry discovery, however, still impresses me, and I wonder how long it'll be till the professor at Harvard who slowed light particles down until they were still will win the prize.) I've also tended to care less about the peace and economics prizes; the former often is awarded for what turn out to be chimeras and utopian efforts that, unfortunately fail (or go to the likes of Mother Teresa), while the other has most frequently gone to brilliant people who have no sense of how human beings behave--except as variables in rarefied mathematical models. James Tobin and Amartya Sen are notable exceptions who come swiftly to mind. I also distinctly recall my surprise in ninth grade at seeing in the local paper that a Black person--Sir Arthur Lewis, a St. Lucian--was a co-winner of the economics prize and taught at Princeton University. I don't think I believed that one even after reading it several times.
I was and am most interested in the Nobel Prizes for Literature. For much of my youth, I associated the Nobel Prize in Literature with "greatness"--it was the ultimate mark of it. But quickly I came to recognize that most of the greatest writers out there, especially non-Europeans, did not and would not win the prize, and that some of the winners (René Sully Prudhomme, Verner von Heidenstamm, Pearl S. Buck, Roger Martin du Gard, etc.--who? exactly!) weren't as interesting or accomplished--good--in any way, as writers that were generally considered to be "bad" or "mediocre." The Good Earth? Please. I also saw that some writers, like John Steinbeck and John Galsworthy, had fallen out of critical favor or had written some books that really weren't that good--though Steinbeck produced several masterpieces that continue to hold up. I also learned about the source of Nobel's wealth--talk about disillusionment!
Still, back then when I thought of the Nobel Prize in Literature, I envisioned the texts I'd read by and images of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, Eugene O'Neill, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Hermann Hesse, Luigi Pirandello, Pablo Neruda, Eugenio Montale, André Gide, Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, George Bernard Shaw, St.-John Perse, etc.. Most of these male figures were also the ones extolled as "geniuses" throughout my education; Eliot's "The Waste Land" was the paradigmatic avant-garde poem, his "Four Quartets" the signature testament of a return to faith; Yeats was one of the most passionate and lyrically inventive figures ever to grace English-language poetry, and he got his second wind!; Faulkner and Hemingway were the stylistic poles around which every American writer had to navigate, and so on. The colonized mind....
But there were those "great" writers who'd never won a Nobel Prize, but who'd lived at least long enough to have gotten one, so what had happened? Why was there no award to James Joyce (how was this possible?), to Kafka, to Proust, to Woolf, to Henry James, to Valéry, to Brecht, to Cather, to Conrad, to Langston Hughes, to Cavafy, to Vallejo, to Roque Dalton...in fact, up till my teen years, only a few non-White, non-European writers had ever won the Nobel Prize: Neruda, of course, and Miguel Angel Asturias, and Gabriela Mistral, all Latin Americans, as well as the Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata (at left), whose startlingly spare and remarkably condensed work, which at its best still holds up, became a passion of mine for a short while. (I didn't know anything about the political or sexual orientations of writers, but Yeats appeared to have fascistic leanings, while Eliot's work was evidently extremely conservative. Gide, I fathomed, was the only openly homosexual--or quasi-homosexual--figure among the bunch; I hadn't yet learned about Mann's ephebophilic passions, Eliot's youthful queer and racialist fantasies....)
I think it was around the time I graduated from high school that the Nobel Prize winners really started to interest me. One year (1982?) Gabriel García Márquez, whom we'd recently read in one of my English classes, won, and he was under 60 years old. Then William Golding, whom we'd also read--The Lord of Flies; do junior high school English classes still assign that book?--received the prize. I felt like I knew these people--I certainly knew their work, and it was contemporary (unlike Eliot's, or Hemingway's, or Yeats's). Then, when I was in college, lo and behold, an African writer received the Nobel Prize! A sub-Saharan African--from Nigeria, Wole Soyinka! And while I'd never seen any of his plays, I'd actually found a book of his hermetic, stunning prison poems in the library, and was so giddy I ran around with it for weeks. After Soyinka, it seemed like a sea-change had taken place--there was Naguib Mafouz of Egypt (1988); Octavio Paz of Mexico (at right) (1990), whom I'd actually seen speak and read his work; Nadine Gordimer, another African writer, whose work I'd found in a used bookstore; and then, in 1992, the Mack himself, Derek Walcott, whom the Dark Room had actually convinced to read, for no money, at the house on Inman Street, just a few years before!
None of these picks was as astonishing or marvelous, I thought, as the one the next year: Toni Morrison. I remember being choked up when I heard that this woman, whose work I'd first come across as a child, who was from a small town in Ohio and went to Howard University, who'd written what I'd come to think was one of the finest novels in American literature (The Song of Solomon) and another that left me speechless at its brilliance (Beloved), a Black American woman who was still alive and still writing and one of my heroes and models--and a hero to almost every writer I knew; and who'd gotten my friend Eric canned when he pressed her for her autograph, on my behalf, just a few years earlier--who was so fierce that she reduced a querulous young woman to tears the night she, Morrison, received an award from the Unitarian-Universalists in Cambridge, whom I'd drawn a picture of and presented it to (does she still have it?), a writer who appeared to raise the hackles of male and non-Black critics with equal frequency--she'd just been awarded the Nobel Prize. It almost seemed unreal. And then, when the pettiness and nastiness of her harshest critics burbled up--"Maybe now she'll learn to write" (Charles Johnson)--it was clear what an achievement her honor really was. She'd won the Nobel Prize! This to me represented the high point of the Nobel committee's efforts. Yes, extraordinary writers before and since have won, writers who've produced more than Morrison, a lot more--how many novels did Halldor Laxness actually publish?--but this was, I thought, a daring choice. And the committee followed it up with several more: Japan's Kenzaburo Oe, who essentially writes variations on the same novel, about his mentally challenged son; Dario Fo, a left-leaning provocateur whose work really doesn't seem to be that great; Gao Xinjian, an obscure Chinese writer living in Paris (when there was the far better known and praised Bei Dao already living in exile in the west); José Saramago, the dazzling Portuguese Communist spinner of metaphysically profound yarns; and last year's winner, with her sexually provocative and formally disruptive texts, Elfriede Jelinek (below). Her novel The Piano Teacher, which I used to see sitting on store shelves for years, untouched, is even more disturbing than the film. Some of the choices have been less surprising: Seamus Heaney, a longtime canonical poet; the plaintive, plangent Polish lyricist Wislawa Szymborska; J. M. Coetzee, whose work up to the raw utterly strange and remarkable Elizabeth Costello struck me as Nobel-resuméish; V.S. Naipaul about whom I'll pass over in silence; and Günter Grass, who was going to win it if he lived long enough. (Jorge Luis Borges's politics, I gathered, kept a Nobel out of his hands, yet the Argentinian right, including the dictatorship, held him in abeyance as well.)
Though I have a much clearer picture these days of the national and international literary world, how people get published or not, how reputations are made (or not)--how the literary system works globally, and exceeds mere aesthetic considerations--I still believe the Nobel Prize is a significant award, and also feel that every writer who wants her or his work to last--and there are other reasons for writing too, which a writer may consider more important, like topicality, or advocacy, or play, etc.--should strive for the stars, push her or his work as far as it will go, even to the risk of failure--and then beyond--as if the Nobel Prize, or some exalted target of excellence, were the goal. I also have read several different books about the history and awards processes of the Nobel Prizes in literature; each of the works broke down the various political and ideological battles, prudery, and other shenanigans that have resulted in some of the bizarre choices, or non-choices, such as the one that kept Tolstoy from winning a prize while a mediocrity like Prudhomme was honored. A more recent book by a Swedish author and articles in the last few years have explored in detail the aesthetic and political bent, quirks and leanings of the members of the Swedish Academy, as well as the nomination and award system, which resulted in certain writers being overlooked completely, while others--Jaroslav Seifert???--were lauded. So I'm quite aware that objectivity isn't really operative (or possible), and that many exceptional writers, for a variety of reasons, may not be honored.
For the last few years, nevertheless, Reggie H. and I have tossed out our choices and expected winners--who we realize won't coincide--and usually the Swedish Academy has chosen someone else. Realizing that my bias tends towards American and English-language writers, and writers from the African Diaspora, whose work I know best, I still believe that top choices should be, based on the innovation, sustained excellence, and literary, cultural and aesthetic significance and impact of their work: Wilson Harris [at bottom] (Britain/Guyana), Jay Wright (US), Kamau Brathwaite (Barbados), Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe/US), John Ashbery (US), Adonis (Syria/Palestine), Assia Djébar (Algeria/US), Hélène Cixous (Algeria/France), Nuruddin Farah (Somalia), Juan Goytisolo (Spain/France), Duong Thu Huong (Vietnam), Alexander Kluge (Germany), Javier Marías (Spain), Harold Pinter (UK), Haruki Murakami (Japan), Luisa Valenzuela (Argentina), Adrienne Rich (USA), Ngugi (Kenya/US), Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua (Israel); Milan Kundera (Czech Rep./France), E. L. Doctorow (US), and Femi Osofisan (Nigeria). Two candidates who probably would have strongly been in the running are no longer eligible--August Wilson; Israeli Yehuda Amichai; German-British writer W. G. Sebald; and Chilean Roberto Bolaño, who passed away a few years ago. I also think it's tougher for poets, and other than Osofisan, I know very little about international dramatic arts, so there may be some very important playwrights I've totally overlooked. I haven't tossed this list of my usual suspects to Reggie H.; I imagine he agrees with some and not with others.
Taking into account the fact that often the Nobel committee follows a round-robin pattern with genres and continents, but prefers writers with centrist-to-leftist viewpoints, a few writers who probably are more likely to have the award bestowed upon them include David Malouf (Australia), who is one of the most highly regarded novelists in his country, a Booker Prize recipient, and winner of the Neustadt Prize for Literature a few years ago, which has gone to several Nobelists in advance of the Swedish prize; Les Murray, also of Australia; Carlos Fuentes, with whom I took a course in college, and whose work has always existed in the shadow of García Márquez's; Marías; Tom Stoppard and Ian McEwan, of Britain; Tomás Tranströmer, of Sweden; novelist Nélida Piñon of Brazil; French poet Yves Bonnefoy; poet Okot p'Bitek of Uganda; Israeli Yoel Hofmann; Roberto Sosa of Honduras; Caryl Phillips, of St. Kitts, the UK, and the US; Mavis Gallant of Canada and France; Alvaro Mutis of Colombia; Homero Aridjis of Mexico; Brazilian Adélia Prado (at right); late Cuban poet Heberto Padilla; Pramoedya Ananta Toer of Indonesia; and Muriel Spark, of Britain. Less likely is American Philip Roth, who, simply because he's American, will probably not win, especially given the horrorshow we have passing for a government, though one exposé a few years actually mentioned Roth as a favorite of one of the chief judges. And he is an extraordinary writer, of capacious skill and accomplishment. To have written one or two of his best books is a lifetime's achievement, but to have penned Portnoy's Complaint; Goodbye, Columbus; Operation Shylock; Sabbath's Theater; American Pastoral; and The Human Stain is beyond amazing, and one of the reasons he's the most highly decorated living fictionist in the US.
But who knows what the Swedish Academy has decided? The end of this week or early next will provide the answer.
UPDATE: According to an article I just came across (but which others probably have already seen) on Yahoo! News, "Nobel Literature Prize Date in Limbo," by AP writer Matt Moore, the Swedish Academy has decided to postpone its announcement of this year's laureate from Thursday, October 6, to the following Thursday, October 13.
Moore says that the postponement has led to speculation that the 18-member Swedish Academy, whose board includes noted poet Kjell Espmark, "may be locked in fierce debate as to who should take home this year's prize, which includes a $1.3 million prize, a gold medal and a diploma, along with a guaranteed boost in sales." Oh, the drama!
Moore's article also suggests that the leading candidates are Americans Joyce Carol Oates (why?) and Philip Roth, Canadian Margaret Atwood, and Somalian Nuruddin Farah. Other writers considered strong favorites are Syrian/Palestinian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said), mentioned above; Korean poet Ko Un; and Swede Tomas Tranströmer. Of this august group, Atwood, Farah, Roth, or Adonis would be my choices. Oates?