Wednesday, October 08, 2008

An Ideal Nobel

Scott McLemee of Inside Higher Ed presents some responses - more responses! - to laughing-boy Horace Engdahl's comments about American literature and the Nobel Prize. You can read some measured words from, among others, Ron Silliman, Levi Stahl, Charlotte Mandell, Scott Esposito and Morris Dickstein. In these and other contributions, you will cry in agreement and then gasp in astonishment at the suggestions for contenders. Mario Vargas Llosa! Is the author of Shag Auntie Peggie really anything more than a middlebrow entertainer? The other, much bigger American names that feature tend to leave me cold, though not for Engdahl's reasons. As Charlotte Mandell's and Steven G. Kellman's observations confirm, the US has a rich engagement with world literature, only the names mentioned are not as well-known as Roth and the rest (except perhaps Paul Auster and John Ashbery). Who is insular now Mr Engdahl? Of course, we all have our opinions about who should win, but it is axiomatic that the prize is now, as Ron Silliman says, political rather than literary. It is, therefore, in literary terms, irrelevant. (At this point, David Markson's entry in Reader's Block deserves another outing). So what is the alternative to handing the prize to the latest politically-correct poster boy or girl? Well, how about applying Alfred Nobel's original criterion - that it should go “to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”? Maybe this needs unpacking too, with a ... heaven forbid ... literary and philosophical/ethical discussion. If the spirit of Nobel's words were applied today then the two living authors I see speaking from the Stockholm dais are Peter Handke and Aharon Appelfeld. (I'd be happy if Enrique Vila-Matas won if only to hurry along translations of his post-Montano Malady novels). There are two big reasons - neither of them literary - why the former won't win, but the latter might sneak under the PC radar; his name even appears in Morris Dickstein's contribution. However, of the several "big" Israeli names who might win this year listed by The Literary Saloon not one is Appelfeld. It's very demoralising. Next year, Schocken publishes a translation of Appelfeld's 1994 novel Laish. It has been many years since one of his novels has been published on this side of the Atlantic. Yes, Engdahl's comments apply more to Great Britain. What's more, had he directed them at us, they would have been ignored.


  1. It's scandalous that Tom Wolfe hasn't- that is if indeed he hasn't- got a Nobel Prize yet, if not for literature then for something else. He's certainly got The Write Stuff.

    Personally I'd give the award to Ewan McIan.

  2. Perhaps Wolfe should get the Nobel Prize in Wardrobe?

    Stephen, you say, "It has been many years since one of [Appelfeld's] novels has been published on this side of the Atlantic." True, though Badenheim 1939 was reissued by Penguin in 2005, with an intro by Josipovici.

    Engdahl's comments are curious because he seems to be suggesting that 'engaging with the world' means writing about countries other than your own. Le Clezio, today's freshly-minted laureate, is a Frenchman who writes about Mauritius ("beyond and below the reigning civilization" as the panel put it). Last year's, Lessing, is an Englishwoman who (often) writes about Africa.

    Nice to see from this BBC report that le Clezio has kept the same hairdo for 45 years. That's the sort of integrity that Engdahl really respects.

  3. The key word being "reissued"! The Iron Tracks, The Conversion, All Whom I Have Loved have been translated and published in the US without a UK equivalent. Is this the case with Oz and Grossman and Yehoshua?

  4. Look, Tom Wolfe used to be a kind of guilty pleasure and a lot of fun. As a novelist he does a great card board figure illustrations of whatever the contemporary platitude. He's certainly a certain kind of ultra-sharp American type journalist. I talked to Handke once about Wolfe, must be back in the late 60s or early 70s, and Handke pointed out at once the mimicry; I was surprised that Handke, the conversation must have been in Europe, was on to what Wolfe was up to! Meanwhile Wolfe actually takes himself seriously as a novelist and during BONFIRE OF THE VANITY days there ensued a lot of space wasting in American papers on whether he was a novelist or not: I can't read him any more, he's a just plain ugly writer now. But he can still can command advances of higher than 5 million bucks, at which point his old time publisher Farrar Straus bowed out the other day.

    As to Handke as a Nobel Prize winner, note this link to a posting of mine at Slate and reaction to it.

    gotta be a bit outrageous to get their attention!

    of course Handke, and though he was right about the disintegration of Yugoslavia, he sure went about
    showing so in an unusual and an unusually hurt way - his cries of pains might have alerted folks
    what deeply personal matters were at play. over here in the u.s. the "bien pensants" on the right and the left who really don't mind george bush's or bill clinton's and the president's to be shock and awe, continue to congratulate themselves for having watched the yugoslav wars on television and having reached the right simpleminded conclusions. handke himself who is as prize hungry as they come has conceded that the yugoslav business will prevent him from ever getting it. quite possibly so. i don't know any of those swedes i don't think. le clezio looks like safe choice. certainly no harm done. but nothing ventured either.
    and 12 sub-sites [the drama lecture]

    [dem handke auf die schliche/ prosa, a book about Handke]
    [the American Scholar caused controversy about Handke, reviews, detailed of Coury/Pilipp's THE WORKS OF PETER HANDKE]
    [some handke material, too, the Milosevic controversy summarized]



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