Eyes on the prize

Susan Salter Reynolds writes about books for The Times.

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There they are in all their glory, this year’s contenders for the world’s most coveted writing award: Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk (3-1 odds), Syrian poet Adonis (4-1), Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski (5-1), Joyce Carol Oates (6-1), followed (ouch) by Philip Roth (10-1) and down into the nether regions of Nobel hopefuls, a list that veers closer to the sublime -- South Korean poet Ko Un, Swedish poet Thomas Transtromer, novelists Milan Kundera and Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Julian Barnes, Paul Auster and, last but not least, Bob Dylan at 500-1 -- than the ridiculous.

The winner will be named on an unspecified date not long after all the other Nobel categories are announced beginning this week. And of this you can be sure: There will be grousing. The general consensus over the last few years seems to be that the Nobel Prize in literature has become, as Roger Straus, co-founder of Farrar, Straus and Giroux once claimed, a “joke,” or as Charles McGrath, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, has said more diplomatically, a “great mystery.” It’s been a difficult decade for the prize-to-end-all-prizes (though the charm of the 10 million Swedish kronor -- or close to $1.4 million -- remains indisputable).


Last year, London literary critic Robert McCrum bemoaned the Nobel’s loss of innocence. The 1997 selection of Italian communist anarchist playwright Dario Fo, he wrote, caused “near universal dismay,” and the 2000 award to Chinese novelist, playwright and poet Gao Xingjian mere “bafflement.” The 2004 choice of Elfriede Jelinek, the belligerently unreadable Austrian feminist, was even more controversial, and caused Knut Ahnlund, one of the 18 members of the Swedish Academy (whose members serve for life) to walk. “Degradation, humiliation, desecration and self-disgust, sadism and masochism are the main themes of Elfriede Jelinek’s work,” he wrote in the conservative paper Svenska Dagblat. “All other aspects of human life are left out.”

Ahnlund accused Horace Engdahl, who has been permanent secretary of the committee since 1999, of “destroying the moral nerve of the nation.” The New Criterion magazine chimed in with a conservative attack, calling the selection of Jelinek “a new low” and, while it was at it, saying Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize served, sniff, only to “cheapen” the prize.

Engdahl, a mere schoolboy at 57 compared with some of his colleagues on the committee, enjoys a kind of notoriety in Swedish literary circles that he often refers to as hurtful. Why do they hate him so? While Ahnlund likes a good human story, Engdahl is a post-structuralist who believes in things like “textual analysis.” In his speech at the presentation of the Nobel to Jelinek, he quoted Hegel (never popular at parties): “Woman is society’s irony.”

“If literature is a force that leads to nothing,” Engdahl pressed on, addressing Jelinek, “you are, in our day, one of its truest representatives.” (Thunderous applause.)

Engdahl has said that he wants to broaden the scope of the prize, “enlarge the mandate”; that it should “develop as literature develops.” Some prize-watchers take this to mean a larger opening for journalists and philosophers (like Bertrand Russell, who won in 1950, or Winston Churchill, who won in 1953, or journalist Ryszard “5-1" Kapuscinski).

But what does it all mean? Where is Derrida when you need him? When Alfred Nobel, who died at 63 in 1896, made provision for the prizes in his 1895 will, the language delineating criteria for the literary prize was, well, obscure. The prize, he said, should go “to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Hmmm. But then this was a guy who, just a few lines down, wrote that it was his “express wish that following my death my veins shall be opened, and when this has been done and competent Doctors have confirmed clear signs of death, my remains shall be cremated in a so-called crematorium.”

Today, the overriding question is how much do the writer’s politics factor into the nomination and award? Is the prize for literature or for politics? (It’s a dessert topping! No, it’s a floor wax!) “It’s a literary prize,” McCrum insists, “not a platform for sending political messages.”

But the people at the New Criterion certainly don’t think that it’s being treated that way. More and more, they say, the prize “has gone to a person who has the correct sex, geographical address, ethnic origin and political profile -- ‘correct’ being determined by the commissars at the Swedish Academy.”

Swedish literary critic Mats Gellerfelt, quoted in a long New Yorker article on the prize in 1999, agreed: “The ideal candidate for the Nobel Prize today,” he said, “would be a lesbian from Asia.”

Close followers of the prize process refer to Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’s win in 1980, the same year the Solidarity movement formed, or William Butler Yeats’ win in 1923, a year after Ireland won independence (to name just two) as proof that the prize has always been politicized.

British playwright Harold Pinter, who said he was amazed when he won last year’s prize (“It never occurred to me that I was a contender,” he told the Guardian), credited his politics -- not just the literary merits of his 29 plays. Pinter previously turned down an offer of knighthood from John Major, but he accepted the Nobel with relish, looking in photos, after a fall in Ireland that left his face bloody and scarred, like a happy pirate. His work is unabashedly left-leaning, with recent references to President Bush as a “mass murderer” and to Tony Blair as “a deluded idiot,” and condemnation of the war in Iraq sprinkled generously throughout. (According to Pinter, a British news channel, mistakenly thinking that he had died after his fall, reported in the morning that “Harold Pinter is dead,” only to change its mind later and announce, “No, he’s won the Nobel Prize.”)

Whatever the criteria, there’s no question that many literary giants have failed to win the prize. Critics point to the glaring omissions of Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust, among others (but then again, Gandhi was never awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, so maybe there’s some kind of freakish reverse psychology thing happening). Boris Pasternak and Jean-Paul Sartre both refused the prize, though Sartre’s relatives high-tailed it to Stockholm after the writer died to demand the money, a demand that was refused.

(Meanwhile, the entire nation of South Korea has waited patiently for almost a decade for its front-runner, Buddhist poet Ko Un -- 12-1 at Ladbroke’s -- to win, each year expressing polite disappointment, resignation and hopefulness for the coming decades.)

There is something smarmy (or perhaps merely pathetic) about a writer who sets out to build his career around hopes of winning the Nobel, something many American writers, including Norman Mailer, Updike and Oates, have been accused of. (Never mind that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wanted it so much that he reportedly invited Swedish writers, critics and academics for lavish vacations at his seaside villa on a regular basis.) Roth, whose tireless campaigning to publish the work of Eastern European writers has always seemed out of sync with his usual subject matter (himself) also has been accused of brown-nosing for the prize. In the opening scenes of Mailer’s 1971 book “The Prisoner of Sex,” he describes himself as a writer who, after “twenty-one years of public life,” longs only for the chance to put the acronym “FNPW” (for Famous Nobel Prize Winner) before his name.

Douglas Messerli, publisher of Green Integer, right here in our own L.A. backyard, has had many writers nominated for the Nobel over the years. This year he has two poets fairly high up on the list: Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said) and Ko Un. Adonis, who was born in 1930, is one of the first Arab poets to write explicitly about sex and love. He’s an experimental writer, with political statements embedded throughout his writing.

This is the third time he’s been nominated for the prize, and Messerli, over on Wilshire Boulevard, gears up each year for an emergency print run, should either Adonis or Ko Un win.

“We’re talking another 1,000 or so copies,” he said, not the millions that tend to accompany the announcement of the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary prize. Why? Because of the highly literary nature of the work, and because it’s poetry.

Isn’t this a sobering and lovely thought in these days of greed? The Nobel Prize in literature, one of the most lucrative prizes a writer can win, goes, more often than not, to the least commercial work in the world. Surely Alfred Nobel, whose lifelong tinkering with nitroglycerin produced some of the most destructive materials and deadliest weapons in the world, and whose name is now synonymous with world peace, would appreciate that small, triumphant irony.