Twenty Nobel Lectures in Literature

What is world literature--as seen from Stockholm?

After seeing Vincent Barletta's recent post on José Saramago's funeral I was spurred to write a post I've been planning for quite a while on the Nobel prize in literature of recent years. I spent Spring Quarter teaching a course on the contemporary global Anglophone novel as seen through the Nobel prize, so I've been thinking about the institution of the prize and the way it reflects and transforms literature. I've also been considering this and other institutions of "world literature" as sites in which certain ideas about literary autonomy--about art for art's sake, writerly freedom, aesthetic distance, and so on--continue to play important, even generative roles, long after literary scholarship has ceased to take those ideas seriously.

So I wanted to carry out a little pilot study, if you will--an attempt to identify trends, commonalities, and contrasts in the last twenty Nobel laureates in literature. But since I don't know all their works, and, indeed, am not competent to read most of them in their original languages, I'm going to look at a rather cruder indicator--the Nobel lecture itself. This form is also conveniently available, in original language and translation, on the excellent, newly redesigned Nobel Prize website. Strange genre the lectures may be; indeed, its practitioners do not even all give a non-fictional lecture. And the laureate with a gift of the gab--Dario Fo, Seamus Heaney--is the exception rather than the rule. One may imagine, too, the hurried circumstances in which such things are written, the apprehensiveness about the audience of Swedes, dignitaries, and Swedish dignitaries, the discomfort with which most (not all) highly consecrated writers perform the role of celebrity. Yet the lectures are--as we discovered in the course I taught--revealing nonetheless. They are prises de position (position-takings): once at the podium, all the laureates find themselves making claims for literature, for the work of the writer; they articulate, implicitly or explicitly, the nature and scope of the writer's authority; they demonstrate solidarities and antagonisms within the literary world and beyond. We need not see the lectures as definitive statements or irrefutable pronouncements ex cathedra to analyse them as so many documents of one version of world literature. Nor do we need to get mired in speculation about the Nobel committee's motives or in arguments about who does and does not deserve the prize to take the Nobel pantheon as given, as data, about one part of the field of world literature.

I find, now that I've started writing this, that it's far too long for a single post! So I'm going to break it up into several. [Scroll down for the link to the continuation.] In the meantime, all you loyal readers (Hi, Mom?) are certainly welcome to comment, to suggest trends or hypotheses yourselves or for any other reason. But be warned! This is not a discussion about who deserves the Nobel prize in literature, or about the putative biases or motivations of the Swedish Academy, or about the past quality of their choices. As James English has shown, cultural prizes thrive on scandalized discussions about such topics--and on charges of corruption, bias, and other nefarious deeds. Such discussions masquerade as analyses but, English's Economy of Prestige has shown, quite miss the point. I'll say more about this in the next installment. For now, let's begin with...

The data

So, what is it like to read twenty Nobel lectures in literature? Here, for your sampling convenience, are links to all the lectures on the Nobel Prize website, where video, original language transcripts, and translations are available:

Octavio Paz, In Search of the Present (1990)
Nadine Gordimer, Writing and Being (1991)
Derek Walcott, The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory (1992)
Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture (1993)
Kenzaburo Oe, Japan, The Ambiguous, and Myself (1994)
Seamus Heaney, Crediting Poetry (1995)
Wislawa Szymborska, The Poet and the World (1996)
Dario Fo, Contra Jogulatores Obloquentes (1997)
José Saramago, How Characters Became the Masters and the Author Their Apprentice (1998)
Günter Grass, To Be Continued... (1999)
Gao Xingjian, The Case for Literature (2000)
V.S. Naipaul, Two Worlds (2001)
Imre Kertész, Heureka! (2002)
J.M. Coetzee, He and His Man (2003)
Elfriede Jelinek, Sidelined (2004)
Harold Pinter, Art, Truth & Politics (2005)
Orhan Pamuk, Babamın bavulu (My Father's Suitcase) (2006)
Doris Lessing, On Not Winning the Nobel Prize (2007)
J.-M. Le Clézio, In the forest of paradoxes (2008)
Herta Müller, Every word knows something of a vicious circle (2009)

Sketches of an analysis

First, who are we reading? I've made a table of the laureates, their countries of residence and origin, their languages, and the principal genres they practice.

YearLaureateNation (Place of birth)LanguagePrincipal Genre
2009Herta MüllerGermany (Romania)GermanNovel
2008Jean-Marie Le ClézioFrance/MauritiusFrenchNovel
2007Doris LessingUK (Rhodesia)EnglishNovel
2006Orhan PamukTurkeyTurkishNovel
2005Harold PinterUKEnglishDrama
2004Elfriede JelinekAustriaGermanNovel
2003J. M. CoetzeeSouth AfricaEnglishNovel
2002Imre KertészHungaryHungarianNovel
2001V. S. NaipaulUK (Trinidad)EnglishNovel, Essay
2000Gao XingjianFrance (China)ChineseNovel
1999Günter GrassGermanyGermanNovel
1998José SaramagoPortugalPortugueseNovel
1997Dario FoItalyItalianDrama
1996Wislawa SzymborskaPolandPolishPoetry
1995Seamus HeaneyIreland (UK/Northern Ireland)EnglishPoetry
1994Kenzaburo OeJapanJapaneseNovel, Essay
1993Toni MorrisonUSAEnglishNovel
1992Derek WalcottSt. LuciaEnglishPoetry
1991Nadine GordimerSouth AfricaEnglishNovel
1990Octavio PazMexicoSpanishPoetry

Does this kind of world literature represent the world's populations? Europeans are in the majority: of the twenty, nine were born outside Europe; but of those nine, two more are UK citizens--Doris Lessing and VS Naipaul, and one, Gao Xingjian, lives in exile in France. European languages dominate more strikingly, making seventeen out of twenty, of which eight are English-language writers. But we also ought to notice the attention the Prize gives to what we might call the European periphery: Herta Müller, Orhan Pamuk, Imre Kertész, José Saramago, and Seamus Heaney all come from outside the European core and self-consciously occupy dominated cultural positions that look towards London-Paris-Berlin centers. Saramago speaks of this peripheral position in his lecture, remarking on dealing with a "Portuguese resentment of the historical disdain of Europe"; and Pamuk is even more explicit when he says:

My basic feeling was that I was 'not in the centre'. In the centre of the world, there was a life richer and more exciting than our own, and with all of Istanbul, all of Turkey, I was outside it. Today I think that I share this feeling with most people in the world. In the same way, there was a world literature, and its centre, too, was very far away from me. Actually what I had in mind was Western, not world, literature, and we Turks were outside it.

Pamuk's speech, which turns on his response to receiving a suitcase of manuscripts from his father, written when his father was a young man in Paris, explores in elaborate depth the feelings of resentment, envy, wistfulness, and defiance this situation provokes in him. That situation is more familiar, at least to scholars in English, as a postcolonial dilemma--and one that does indeed find expression, though in very varied ways, in Naipaul, Heaney, Gordimer, Coetzee, even Paz. But among these laureates Pascale Casanova's hypothesis, that this predicament of cultural domination does not line up too exactly with direct political domination, seems to hold good. (The World Republic of Letters, q.v. That wonderful book has been, of course, the prime inspiration for this little experiment in literary-sociological speculation.)

What about genre? The Nobel Prize is now and for a long time has been primarily a prize for the novel. In our set of twenty only six are not primarily known as writers of novels, though Naipaul is equally famous as an author of nonfiction. But--again a surprise, from the English-department perspective--the most emphatically "postcolonial" Nobelists are poets: Paz, Walcott, Heaney. These are writers who speak passionately about local or indigenous traditions, about creating distinctive cultures. By contrast, the postcolonial novelists are more ambivalent--"Sir Vidya" Naipaul and the two white South Africans. Yet what we sometimes carelessly assume is the nationalism of a postcolonial idiom is belied by the poets as well: Paz speaks of "the Americas," Walcott of "the Antilles."

As for the form of the speeches themselves: almost all are statements in propria persona. Coetzee's, however, is (of course) a complicated fiction, related entirely in the third person, and drawing conspicuously on stories from Defoe. Jelinek's speech, too, though written in the first person, is allegorical rather than autobiographical, and only ambiguously personal, in its meditation on language. Choosing a passage almost at random:

My language isn’t calling, it’s gone, too, my language has gone from me, that’s why it has to call, it shouts in my ear, no matter out of which gadget, a computer or a mobile phone, a phone booth, from where it roars in my ear, that there’s no point in saying something out loud, it already does that anyway, I should simply say what it tells me...

Even for this moment of public acclamation, then, Coetzee and Jelinek choose forms of authorial concealement and distance. (Jelinek did not in fact appear in person at all for her prize ceremony, but sent a video recording of her text.)

But these are exceptions which underline the norm of the occasion, in which the person and personality of the author is an important component of the authorial position. Scholarly nervousness around biography does not, for the most part, affect the laureates (and it's not for nothing that the exception, Coetzee, is a PhD and onetime English professor). Almost all the lectures recount some personal history--Morrison and Pinter, with Coetzee, are the exceptions. The writer's childhood is in fact a central theme of most of these lectures, invoked by Paz, Gordimer, Oe, Heaney, Fo, Saramago, Grass, Naipaul, Pamuk, Lessing, Le Clézio, and Müller (12/20 = 60%). Here is Kenzaburo Oe:

During the last catastrophic World War I was a little boy and lived in a remote, wooded valley on Shikoku Island in the Japanese Archipelago, thousands of miles away from here. At that time there were two books by which I was really fascinated: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. The whole world was then engulfed by waves of horror. By reading Huckleberry Finn I felt I was able to justify my act of going into the mountain forest at night and sleeping among the trees with a sense of security which I could never find indoors.

This childhood scene of reading in particular appears again and again, as though the unacknowledged model of all Nobel lectures was Proust's Du côté de chez Swann. (Proust is among the more frequently-cited figures in these lectures, mentioned by Gordimer, Naipaul, and Kertész. The Hungarian author adds an ironic twist: "I once said that so-called Socialism for me was the petite madeleine cake that, dipped into Proust's tea, evoked in him the flavor of bygone years.") To judge from these Nobel lectures, we may hypothesize that the Proustian (or, indeed, Wordsworthian) idea that the writer's sensibility is deeply rooted in childhood experience remains powerful among the most decorated literary writers. Such an idea lends great weight to our idea of the writerly "calling": to be a great world literary figure, one needs to be chosen early by fate, not merely trained.

And here, loyal nonexistent reader, I come to a breaking point. "To be continued..." --to quote the title of Günter Grass's speech; or, better in German: Fortsetzung folgt! ...

Twenty Nobel Lectures in Literature, Part 2

Twenty Nobel Lectures in Literature, Part 3

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