Thursday, October 09, 2008

Sarah Palin syndrome in Nobel Prize Committee

A little known French author has been named as the Nobel Literary prize winner this year. Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, "a cosmopolitan and prolific French novelist, children’s author and essayist regarded by many French readers and critics as one of the country’s greatest living writers. " according to The New York times.

Looks like the Swedish committee has pulled a McCain (in choosing the very unknown and politically callow Palin for his running mate) in its choice of this year's literary Nobelist. Out of the better known, and maybe more deserving of recognition of literary excellence, short list of authors, they picked an obscure writer, for a political reason, rather explicitly acknowledged by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury:

"There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world ... not the United States," he told the Associated Press. "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature ...That ignorance is restraining."

Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion, contextualized these comments, with their openly avowed de-Americanization of the Nobel prize with "a degree of detachment...

"It reminds me a little bit of the Apollo space programme that Uganda instituted under the rule of Idi Amin, where they had rockets and so on, except that they were made out of balsa wood," he said. "It strikes me as a kind of publicity stunt for a prize that in recent years has demonstrated its fatuousness and political complexion with one political laureate after the next punctuated now and then by a VS Naipaul just to lend a patina of credibility."

This overt politicization of literary merit and excellence is a self-inflicted wound in the future prestige and value of the Nobel prize. If American authors are to be excluded from its potential winners, it is the prize that will lose its lustre and worth, not American literature, which will continue to produce the best literature around. American society has the good fortune in being a diversity of ethnicities, cultures, religions, tastes and talents. Nothing like the pooling of all these factors in one place to generate the best creative minds in literature or science. America is in no danger of becoming mediocre just because the Swedish Nobel committee proclaims it to be so:

The New Yorker's David Remnick accused the Nobel committee of being eternally incapable of recognising good writing when it saw it. "You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures"

The Guardian's Comment is Free has offered us the usual feisty analysis:

"The Nobel prize for literature doesn't really have much to do with literary excellence - and that's not a bad thing"

but it's the readers' comments that give us a more direct insight into the undercurrent subconscious passions working in this story:

The Nobel prize for literature has long been politicized, so no surprise at Engdahl's views.
Just compare the works of Neruda and Borges.

One guy got the prize because he wrote doggerel Marxist poetry. The other guy didn't get it solely because he supported the Argentine junta.


Or it could be just typical European provincialism, of the sort derided by Saul Bellow in "Humboldt's Gift" which was, oddly enough, one of the few books by a US author to win the prize in semi-recent memory.


All this in no way detracts from Le Clézio's literary merit which I'm sure is as poetic and environmental as is claimed. I'll make a point of looking him up in my next trip to Chapters. No doubt his translated books will be given an honorary display podium, right at the entrance to the store.


Post a Comment

<< Home