Saturday, October 18, 2008

Thoughts on Nobel Prize Brouhaha

Don't you want to know what I thought of that member of the Nobel Prize committee's dismissal of contemporary American literature that stirred up an afternoon's worth of controversy in global--or at least the English-speaking world's--literary circles in the days leading up to the awarding of this year's medal? I thought as much, and that I ought to weigh in with a statement regarding the matter.

For anyone who has no idea what I am referring to, one of the Swedes who casts a vote, or however it is done, for the Literature prize, when asked by a journalist about the prospects for an American winner (there has been but 1 in the last 32 years, and some people think that doesn't smell quite right), expressed the opinion that American writers were too insular, overconcerned with pop culture--and exclusively their own at that, unengaged in literary dialogues with the great international writers of the day, and so on in that general vein, as well as the remark that got everybody especially fired up, that Europe was the center of the world literary scene (though I am not sure why this last upset anybody. I thought every American writer's fantasy was that we might someday have a more prominent book-centered culture, or at least oases of it, on the international model, with the witty banter, the feuds, the love affairs, the picturesque seaside villas, the confrontations with the government and all the rest of it). The general gist of the response, such as it was, was essentially to deny the charges as absurd, at least where our serious authors were concerned, disparage the Prize because Sully Prudhomme, Selma Lagerlof, John Galsworthy, and lots of communist sympathizers had won it and Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust, and G.K. Chesterton had not (some people threw in Kafka as well, but given that he died at age 41, before he was very widely known even in German-language circles, I think the committee can be cut a little slack on him), roll out the usual ripostes about European sterility and decline, and offer up Philip Roth or John Updike or Don Delillo (these seemed to be the top 3 suggested candidates) as being much better than any of the winners of the last 15 years except V.S. Naipaul and maybe Orhan Pamuk. While some of these points contain nuggets of truth, I thought they were such as rather missed the mark, and did more to give credibility to the criticisms than to make them appear foolish, which in many ways they are, though not in the ways to which people seemed to be responding.

Fig. 1--George Seferis was all business when he brought the Prize back to Hellas in '63.First I will note, that while I don't think the Prize is that much of a big deal to literary giants in major Western countries and literary languages--it does seem to have a somewhat more significant impact internationally where winners from lesser known literatures are concerned, just with regard to their becoming known, which frequently they were not, much, before--I don't have a problem with it existing. I do not know how much outrage there was in 1938 at Pearl Buck's winning the award over James Joyce--I suspect not as much as there is now--but doubtless there are eligible candidates that are being overlooked rather innocently today whose neglect will be regarded as a travesty fifty years from now. It is not a Hall of Fame, nor a Pantheon, so much as an very wealthy, venerable, eccentric sort of club that holds an annual dinner and chooses a different guest of honor every year according to its prevailing disposition the week that the invitations go out (this is with regard mainly to the Peace and Literature prizes; I know that the Science and Economics Prizes are held as stamps of true legitimacy and achievement in those fields). As once or twice a decade, sometimes more, the literary club's choice of guest speaker falls upon an honoree with great cachet among the initiated who usually accepts the invitation (Faulkner; Yeats; Solzhenitsyn; Garcia-Marquez; Beckett, though I think he may have refused to show) it is able to retain its shroud of relevancy, and causes its less solid choices to arouse a seemingly inordinate amount of indignation for a subjective prize awarded by a group of middle-aged Swedish academics and writers whose names would be unrecognized by anyone not of that country.

The prevailing disposition of the moment, incidentally, seems to be cosmopolitanism, especially in the form of engagement with the "emerging" cultures? populations? economies? of Africa and Asia, and a desire to look away from the tired, dead-end way of life that most conventional artistic wisdom has it the West has gotten itself stuck in. This year's winner, Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio, is French, but moved to Nigeria at the age of 8, went to college in Britain, lived in Mexico and Central America for many years, and is married to a woman from Morocco. Last year's winner, Doris Lessing, was born in Iran to British parents and grew up in Rhodesia. I don't believe she was in Europe before she was 20 or so. She also does not think much of Americans, which certainly does not seem to count against anybody's candidacy these days. Another recent winner, Naipaul, fits this pattern as well. Pamuk, it is true, is said to almost never leave Istanbul, though where exotic Oriental or African cities are concerned--Mahfouz and Cairo being another example--these are teeming with enough life and culture to qualify as worlds onto their own, from which a man need never stray and still be able to attain artistic fullness at the highest levels, which I am not sure even New York or Los Angeles qualify as being now.

Also, from the American point of view, the Nobel Prizes are similar to the Olympics, in being one of the few things that a fairly significant number of Americans take an interest in and participate in but which are controlled by Europeans and are run on their peculiar whims and prejudices. This drives a lot of Americans crazy. To use an example from the Olympics, the sport of skiing is, in the United States, proficiently practiced among a fairly narrow demographic relative to the size of the country, though still large enough to produce a fair number of world class skiers; in say, Norway, nearly everyone can ski better than 98% of Americans, and though the raw numbers of proficient skiers in Norway and the United States are probably roughly the same, the Scandanavians regard skiing as almost an essential part of their collective experience and consciousness as a people, a thoroughness of understanding and identification with the activity that it is assumed an American, because it is not an activity central to and shared with the collective life of the nation as a whole (with rare exceptions) cannot attain. There are, and have been historically, many examples of this--the French with food, the old Austrians with music--that it is taken for granted the American cannot fully grasp because his whole existence, all the people he associates with in childhood, etc, are not saturated in this knowledge; this is how people from other countries are constantly able to declare with perfect conviction that American culture consists of nothing but fast food and television, these being apparently the only things shared in common among the whole population. When a European thus makes a statement about Europe being the center of the literary world, he knows what he means, and what he means is not merely that brilliant, important work is being done there--this may well be debatable--but that one can count on literature's having priority among serious people, and that such people will be both deeply grounded in it and in the understanding of what it means, what it is, and how it integrates into the fabric of historic and communal life. He may be wrong in this too, but I certainly do not see the same kind of strong literary sensibility and way of relating to human society among educated Americans as one tends to find among Europeans and certain other foreign nationals, though the Americans be otherwise of equal or superior intelligence.

Fig 2--The Banquet. I know you need that long table so everybody can be accorded approximately equal status. I imagine if you are Queen Elizabeth or someone who has to take meals like this on a regular basis though this setup must grow rather wearisome.

It is my personal opinion that the cheerleaders for American literature either overestimate its quality or are simply unfamiliar even on a basic level with the impressive literary histories and cultures that exist in other countries, even perhaps that of England. Philip Roth and John Updike are good writers, Updike especially I give extra points to for liking the same kind of girls I like, but I cannot conceive of them as having any especial claim on the Nobel Prize, though that does not mean I think they would be unworthy recipients. They are professional, diligent and precise. The world of their books is, whether completely honest at all times or not, instantly recognizable as our own, which is, however, ultimately their limitation. A master novelist needs to infuse his fictional world with some quality of magic that gives it a heightened reality beyond its resemblance to our familiar world. The living American author who most possesses that quality is also perhaps the most widely famous internationally, though his name is never brought up in discussion about the Nobel Prize--I think it is safe to say he would pass on the banquet with the king--I am of course talking about none other than J. D. Salinger.

Now I am aware that J.D. Salinger does not really have the body of work to qualify for the Nobel Prize, that he has not published anything since John Kennedy was president, and that most serious people think, definitely on the record anyway, that he is immature, solipsistic, and not a great writer in the least. I even grant that these are fair criticisms. His books are terribly misunderstood; at least the apparent messages of them--that, among other things, prep schools, the Ivy League, New York City and most of modern society are dungholes full of horrible people--fail to take their proper effects, because all of these things aforementioned have never quite been portrayed so attractively to so many people even as they are supposed to be repulsed by them. Salinger doubtless always felt like an outsider in this rarified world he portrays--I think that is pretty evident--while actually being, by the standards of a kid stuck in a cul-de-sac in Alpharetta, Georgia, or Manassas, Virginia, anyway, an insider. That is doubtless a great part of the source of his attraction as a writer, but really the books work--and I have looked over a couple of them recently, they really do work--because they are fantasies so very appealing that even when Seymour Glass blows his brains out one feels comforted that he was able to do so on such a fine afternoon, in such a fine hotel room, and after having such a witty dialogue with the strange little girl on the beach. The more hardheaded critics always saw right through this, but I always thought it telling that Nabokov, who generally eviscerated everyone writing at the time as a clod of one degree or another, and always maintained his own very strict, but very singular, standard of what he considered "seriousness" found Salinger to possess something approaching authentic literary talent which he could not bring himself to allow he found anywhere else on the American scene at the time. It might also be noted that credibly intelligent, attractive, and successful people don't name their children after characters in Philip Roth or Don Delillo novels. These things of course are not what literature or the Nobel Prize are all about, and may mean nothing, but I thought them worthy of at least momentary consdieration.

Abroad, Salinger seems to be especially popular in Germany and the former Eastern Bloc countries too, for what it's worth, as usual among people who read and appear to be more than usually intelligent but tend not to be in positions of any cultural authority higher than teaching high school or blogging. In the communist nations, I suspect he was allowed by the authorities to be translated as a chronicler of American depravity, but such depravity as was again found to be attractive by the more sensitive or suppressed people to whom the books found their way. I have generally found that foreigners who like Salinger hold a more generally positive impression of the United States than those that especially like Faulkner or Noam Chomsky.

Fig 3--Bringing the Nobel to New Hampshire?

1 comment:

Virtual Memories said...

Actuallly, my mom wanted to name me after the lead character in Portnoy's Complaint, for reasons I won't get into.