Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Nobelisms (Updated)

Tomorrow the Swedish Academy will announce the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature winner. In past years I've posted long musings on potential winners of this arguably most august of prizes, but this year I'm going to keep it relatively simple. There are many writers I think are deserving, almost none of whom have been given the award in recent years, but then, who am I.  Since 1995, the winners mostly been Europeans, and it has tilted in favor of fiction (I love fiction, but there are many extraordinary poets out there too). The award has also been tipped, perhaps more so than in the past, in a political direction, which I don't have such a problem with, but of course not every outstanding writer is overtly so or can be placed in an easy political framework, even if all writing is political.

Over the last ten years the winners have been Herta Müller (Germany and Romania, 2009), J.-M. G. LeClézio (France, 2008), Doris Lessing (South Africa and UK, 2007), Orhan Pamuk (Turkey, 2006), Harold Pinter (UK, 2005--I strongly supported this selection), Elfriede Jelinek (Austria, 2004--a bizarre pick), J. M. Coetzee (South Africa, 2003--one of the most exceptional living writers in English), Imre Kértesz (Hungary, 2002), V. S. Naipaul (UK, 2001--why?), and Gao Xingjian (China, 2000). That is a mostly-European group (either by choice or ancestry), 9 people primarily writing fiction with 1 playwright, and 8, or 9, if you count Turkish, writing primarily in European languages.  (Gao writes in French, I believe, but for was honored for works written originally in Chinese.) 7 of these winners have been men. Unaccountably among them not a single poet.

This year, then, I especially hope that it goes to a poet, and that that poet is Adonis [Adunis] (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, 1930-), one of the greatest living writers in Arabic. An experimentalist, a writer of lyrical gifts that carry over, despite the linguistic transfer, into English, a person born in the Middle East (Syrian), an Alawite (a Shi'ite group), who has lived in Lebanon and Paris, he is the author of more than two dozen volumes of poetry. He would be only the second writer working primarily in Arabic to receive the prize and, I believe, the second Muslim.  Since the Nobel authorities sometimes like to cause a stir, perhaps they will do so by selecting him, though he is possibly less controversial, I would venture, than some other literary figures living in the Middle East or elsewhere.  (You can listen to an interview Charlie Rose conducted with him in 2008 here.)

But who knows? I either read or dreamt that the prize will be going to Adam Zagajewski, the much ballyhooed Polish poet, or the Swedish poet Thomas Transtromer. On the other hand, according to the original link Reggie H. sent me, Ladbrokes, the betting agency, was listing the great Kenyan author (fiction, primarily) Ngugi wa'Thiongo to win it all. (I once almost had the opportunity to study with him in grad school, but wasn't able to work my schedule out to do so.) The list has now switched to Cormac McCarthy (I am a fan, but he wouldn't be at the top of my list), followed by Haruki Murakami (I am a huge fan, but think he should get it a few years from now), Ko Un (I did post one of his poems a few years back), Transtromer, Adonis, Gerald Murnane (I know nothing about him), Joyce Carol Oates (why she's in this list is beyond me), Les Murray, Peter Nadas, Alice Munro (the greatest living short story writer in English), Juan Gelman, Ulrich Holbein, and my former professor E. L. Doctorow (I adore him and his work). Not many poets, nor many women. Oh well. Others who should be in or high in that list, like Nuruddin Farah, Wilson Harris, Kamau Brathwaite, Assia Djebar, Yoel Hoffmann, etc. are not. Dear Swedish Academy, surprise us. But with a poet, not from Europe (at least this go round), and perhaps a woman (Claribel Alegría? Marjorie Agosín? Anne Carson? Adelia Prado?)....

Update: The 2010 Nobel Laureate in literature is Mario Vargas Llosa, who lives in his native Peru and France. Though widely acclaimed for decades for his fiction and criticism, Vargas Llosa is also a noted political conservative who actually ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990, at the height of that country's battle against different groups of Marxist rebels, and has gained notoriety for his controversial personal life and behavior, which has included punching out fellow Nobel Laureate (and one of the great fiction writers of the late 20th century) Gabriel García Márquez.

Here's what I wrote to Reggie H. and Herbert R. concerning Vargas Llosa (about whom I also tweeted on the day of the announcement):

"Well, many years ago, when I was young and naive, I fell in love with his book The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, which weaves a queer theme into its narrative. But...oh well.

"I guess they feel he's moved from the narcissism of the early works like Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter to broader and more universal works, in which the political critiques oppose his earlier views, like The Feast of the Goat. That's a pretty amazing book."


"I had read that [bit about his break with Gabriel García Márquez], but chalk it up to Vargas Llosa's impetuousness and self-importance more than anything else. He's an unpleasant character from all that I've ever read.  He sort of reminds me of V. S. Naipaul in that regard; someone with great talent, but a very nasty man. But the Nobel Committee has chosen male writers like this (Eliot, Canetti) again and again. Is there even one woman writer they've chosen who behaves like some of these men (liars like Grass; fascists like Hamsun, etc.).

At any rate, there's a great little chapter in Alberto Manguel's book, Into the Looking-Glass Wood, that addresses Vargas Llosa's politics. I use it every year when I teach [the] course on writing, publishing, etc., and I shall be trotting it out anew this January, since it'll be especially salient."
I also sent this to my former student, writer Francisco M., who responded:

I've read only two books by him, AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER and FEAST OF THE GOAT (a really fun and sensationalistic read). But I don't think he's a "great" writer (or that he doesn't have the criteria to be a "great" writer). This will sound weird, but his writing is too sleek and entertaining for that. He's too "poppy" and sometimes it clashes against the subject matter. (In FEAST OF THE GOAT it felt really disorienting reading about atrocities depicted in such sensational soap opera prose). I think he writes engrossing, page-turning books in barely literary prose, actually. The best way I can think of it is that he's a pop fiction writer trying to write "important" books. If Vargas Llosa would have dropped the pretense, and written crime novels or something, THEN he would have been great and brilliant. But in general his books come off like watered-down "literature." Gregory Rabassa said that Vargas Llosa writes as if he cares what people will think and that the prose is too slick.

I think Rabassa's verdict is an apt summary. Congratulations to him nevertheless. As for poetry and the world's great poets, there's always next year....

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