Monday, October 06, 2008

Nobel or not?

And here’s the counterpoint to the Swede’s comments about the United States of America being too insular a country to be relevant in the discussion of literature, especially in terms of the coveted and increasingly maligned Nobel Prize. While any writer (save Sartre who famously declined the award) would be thrilled to death to get the prize, the Nobel gang has missed the boat many times, as people love to point out (Proust, Joyce, Nabakov, and, most astonishingly to some, Borges never received a Nobel). These oversights seem egregious to some, but when one of the permanent chairs of the committee pretty much says that no American is going to win anytime soon it ruffles quite a few feathers here in the U. S. of A.

My thoughts:

The Swede has a point about our lack of translations and ignorance of what’s going on in the world of literature.

The Swede is wrong when he states that Europe is still the center of the literary world. If you ask me it would be Latin America, as the number of papers and journals is apparently staggering—not to mention that is the part of the world I most privilege when it comes to all things literary. If you ask a lot of people they might say that Asia is the current center. Japan, China, Korea, India, Vietnam, even tiny little Sri Lanka are producing much more (to some) interesting books than the tired floggings of postmodernism and passionless pretenses toward passion being conducted by any score of Europeans. John O’Brien from the Dalky Archive, in an essay clearly grinding an old axe, made a comment along the lines of: just because something is translated (or foreign) doesn’t make it good. He has a point.

That being said, we don’t translate enough books and we don’t have a huge idea of what’s going on in the rest of the world—literature wise. Then again, I wonder if the average European knows what we’re up to. Or what the writers of Iceland are doing. Or Peru. Or Australia. Or Kenya. I doubt the Europeans know much more about the books that exist outside of their union. Sure, the Swede’s know about what’s happening in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, maybe even Eastern Europe, but I wonder if they know much beyond that. Probably, but probably not terribly much more than we do. The truth is that we are insular and hold up rugged individualism like a Boy Scout badge of honor, but there are enough of us trying to see beyond our borders to constitute a significant minority. Anyway, the U.S.A. is very big, so if you count our numbers then maybe we comprise almost as many translation happy heads as they have over in Europe.

And now for even more inconclusive speculations:

When I was in Europe I hit a few bookstores. I don’t recall seeing anything unfamiliar. It’s not like there was a plethora of books and writers I’d never heard of. Even in France I saw familiar names and long revered titles. In Portugal I noted the number of American mysteries I saw translated into Portuguese. Even in snobby olde England I was shocked at the lack of really good bookstores I saw (though I really only looked in one part of London). To sum it up: The Seminary Co-op here in Chicago boasts more scholarly books and certainly more translated “literary” works in its relatively small basement than I saw in all of Europe. (Again, I didn’t visit a ton of stores, but still…) Imagine the stock of the Co-op, the Strand in New York and Powell’s in Portland fused into one location and you’d have quite a variety of books originating from a myriad of countries. Can England boast the same? Can France? Even with the all the books of the left bank lined up in a row it would pale in comparison.

And I know, not all the books in those three U.S. stores I named are so-called high quality literature. And I know that bigger certainly does not equal better. But I also know that indefensible blanket statements like the ones made by Horace Engdahl warrant a rejoinder. They also warrant some serious (and, in my case, not so serious) questioning as to who has the more salient point and what motivates these points of view.

According to the article in Slate, we’re a pretty literary country with a living master, Phillip Roth— a name bandied about every year around Nobel time and a name that will surely never be seen listed among Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, other American writers who, unlike Roth, snagged the award. Now, say what you like about Roth (he’s a notorious asshole, a colleague once told me about how he called Toni Morrison a terrible name when she won and he didn’t), but he’s written some pretty good books. He’s been, as Slate points out, just postmodern and experimental (to use a loathsome phrase) enough to garner comparisons to Calvino and Kafka and just enough of a realist to live up to the American, if not the 19th Century Russian, tradition of great writing. Other American names always thrown into the hat are Pynchon (who I cannot read) and DeLillio (who I need to revisit). Despite what I think of these three writers (very mixed feelings), any of them would make more sense to me as a Nobel winner than Doris Lessing. (Then again, I’d much rather see Maria Vargas Llosa of Peru or Carlos Fuentes from Mexico or Ngugi Wa’Thiongo from Kenya or Ciaran Carson from Northern Ireland win the award.)

The long and the short of all of this is that the Nobel, while unquestionably prestigious, is run by an imperfect committee capable of blunders and just as many ridiculous statements as you’ll find in your average Sarah Palin interview. And the other conclusion is that this has always been the case, and, as stated above, this hardly detracts from the glory of snagging a Nobel. And, as Slate concludes, American writers ought to just ignore and forget about the entire thing, which is pretty good advice.

I think William Faulkner had the right frame of (drunken) mind when he won. First of all, he demurred on the phone when informed that he was the winner—his daughter had to talk him into making the trip and accepting the prize. And then he made a legendary speech. And then, at the after party, got drunk and misplaced the prize. Eventually it turned up in a potted plant.