Blog Post

Twenty Nobel Lectures in Literature (2)

Let us return once again to the groves of Swedish Academe, and continue contemplating the last twenty Nobel literature lectures...

Before I pick up where the last post left off, I want to point interested readers (ye unhappy few) to the running discussion on Arcade about the sociology of literature. The most recent entry in that discussion is Lee Konstantinou's post on the New Literary Sociology. I make no claims for the sociological validity of this Nobel lecture-reading exercise, which is more sociology-inspired than sociological. Are there any content-analysis specialists or sociologists of culture out there who have suggestions on how one might investigate these questions more rigorously?

But to resume. I was looking at the frequency with which the laureates discuss their childhoods in their lectures; to me this suggested the continuing power of the idea of the literary vocation, with its attendant idea of the solitary literary talent. Pamuk says that the meaning of literature "is what a person creates when he shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and retires to a corner to express his thoughts." As we'll see in the next and final installment of these posts, these assertions of individualism and autonomy coexist, in general, with descriptions of the writer's worldly ties and commitments. But for today, I want to look at the question of literary canons.

The childhood scenes of reading also show these Nobel writers positioning themselves within a literary lineage. This too is a standard device of the Nobel literature lecture. Here Coetzee is not the exception but in the most extreme example, not only mentioning Defoe but appropriating him; "He and His Man" is a narrative focalized through a third person who turns out to be Robinson Crusoe:

When he came back to England from his island with his parrot and his parasol and his chest full of treasure, he lived for a while tranquilly enough with his old wife on the estate he bought in Huntingdon, for he had become a wealthy man, and wealthier still after the printing of the book of his adventures. But the years in the island, and then the years traveling with his serving-man Friday (poor Friday, he laments to himself, squawk-squawk, for the parrot would never speak Friday's name, only his), had made the life of a landed gentleman dull for him.

Coetzee (as in his novel Foe) speaks as though in the voice of the British literary canon, though with a subversive edge that one is very tempted to attribute to his South African, extra-European position. More typical, though: Paz's mention of Baudelaire, Gordimer's of Proust and Kafka, Morrison's of Lincoln, Fo's of Ruzzante Beolco, Saramago's of Camões and Pessoa, Grass's of Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Heinrich Böll, Gao's of Kafka (again), Pessoa (again), and Cao Xueqin, Naipaul's of Proust and RK Narayan, Pinter's of Neruda, Pamuk's of Montaigne, Lessing's of Tolstoy. Only Walcott and Müller name no literary predecessors---though Walcott looks to other, vernacular cultural traditions in his lecture.

Notable by its absence in these personal canons is the literature of the nineteenth century--outside of Russia, that is. (Heaney, in speaking of poetry, does look to the nineteenth century--Keats and Hopkins---alongside twentieth-century poets in US, the UK and Ireland, before turning to Homer.) Whether this is because the monumental status of the nineteenth-century novel in Western Europe still remains an obstacle to bypass, or whether it is because once we contemplate literature from a global vantage Europe's monument shrinks down to its proper size--that is an open question for me.

Or perhaps it is something even simpler, namely the age of the laureates. The laureates under discussion were born between 1914 and 1953, and fifteen of the twenty between 1920 and 1940. Here is another table:

Year of prize Laureate Year born Age at time of prize
1990 Octavio Paz 1914 76
1991 Nadine Gordimer 1923 67
1992 Derek Walcott 1930 62
1993 Toni Morrison 1931 62
1994 Kenzaburo Oe 1935 59
1995 Seamus Heaney 1939 56
1996 Wislawa Szymborska 1923 73
1997 Dario Fo 1926 71
1998 José Saramago 1922 75
1999 Günter Grass 1927 71
2000 Gao Xingjian 1940 60
2001 V. S. Naipaul 1932 69
2002 Imre Kertész 1929 72
2003 J. M. Coetzee 1940 63
2004 Elfriede Jelinek 1946 57
2005 Harold Pinter 1930 74
2006 Orhan Pamuk 1952 54
2007 Doris Lessing 1919 87
2008 Jean-Marie Le Clézio 1940 68
2009 Herta Müller 1953 56

Whee! Numbers. Broadly speaking, these laureates represent the first generation for whom early-twentieth-century writers were not contemporaries but elders. Though one can't always equate biological age with membership in a literary generation, I think the lectures bear out the claim that the last twenty years of Nobel laureates recognize writers who self-consciously follow in the footsteps of Euro-American high modernism.

But these lectures also bring into focus an alternate kind of tradition, one which is not invoked in author's names and titles from parents' libraries. Fo speaks of the oral tradition of his birthplace; Le Clézio speaks of storytellers he met in the Central American forest of Darién; Lessing recalls the storytelling traditions of Africa. There is a certain universalizing rhetoric that goes along with the putative localism and indigeneity of oral tradition. Morrison's invocation makes the tension clear; her speech is framed around a story of a storyteller:

"Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise." Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures.

But, she goes on, she knows the "version" in which "the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town." The laureates invoke the primitive magic of storytelling as a human universal and a link to a bloodline. Or, in another configuration of these elements, we have the two Caribbean writers invoking the mixtures of their home islands: for both Walcott and Naipaul, they are inspired by the mixtures of languages and cultures there, and by the consciousness of the brutal history that brought those mixtures about (and eradicated other languages from the mix altogether, as in Naipaul's pathos-suffused account of the vanished Chaguanes Indians who, he discovered, gave their name to the town of his birth, Chaguanas, Trinidad). Here again the local and the universal make a joint appeal as sources of literary tradition.

I also detect, in the tribute to oral tradition, a marshalling of forces in the battle of media. The 1990–2009 Nobel lectures often glance at television, film, and the internet as threatening rivals to literature; and, in a sense, the laureates line their own medium, the book, up with oral and live performance traditions against the newer media. Szymborska, Fo, Pamuk, Lessing, Le Clézio, all draw contrasts between television or film and literature; Walcott and Heaney, exceptional again, are more positive in their evocations of film and radio, respectively. Lessing takes a swipe at the Internet too:

How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by this internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc.

(But then, Lessing has long enjoyed swimming against the tide and playing the curmudgeon. I should also note that Lessing goes on to make the continuing hunger for books outside the West the theme of her lecture.) But to see this as a conflict of "old" vs. "new" media is to miss the way in which what is "old" has also shifted in response to the new. A performer like Dario Fo would have been inconceivable as a Nobel laureate a few decades earlier; though the Nobel has recognized drama for a long time (José Echegaray, 1904; Maurice Maeterlinck, 1911), Fo is the first from what the Nobel press release calls a "non-institutional tradition." Fo's lecture itself was in fact an improvisation on the basis of stick-figure drawings, copies of which he circulated in the audience. I group Morrison's, Lessing's, Grass's, and Le Clézio's evocations of oral storytelling ancient and contemporary together with Fo's performance as examples of the way in which Nobel "literature," as a category, has shifted to incorporate the medium of live performance. I hypothesize, without real evidence, that this shift has occurred in tandem with the ever-growing dominance of new media. Will the day ever come when a Nobel Prize in literature goes to a creator of films or television or digital media? Or will old and new media continue to occupy relatively stable positions in the symbolic hierarchy of prestige (inverse positions, one might add, to those on the hierarchies of economic capital).

Do world literary figures invoke world literature? Do they look to literary canons and storytelling traditions that are themselves global? The trends are by no means simple. The most willfully globe-trotting version is Le Clézio's, who dedicates his speech

to the Africans: Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ahmadou Kourouma, Mongo Beti, to Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country, to Thomas Mofolo's Chaka. To the great Mauritian author Malcolm de Chazal, who wrote, among other things, Judas. To the Hindi-language Mauritian novelist Abhimanyu Unnuth, for Lal passina (Sweating Blood) to the Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder for her epic novel Ag ka Darya (River of Fire). To the defiant Danyèl Waro of La Réunion, for his maloya songs; to the Kanak poetess Déwé Gorodey, who defied the colonial powers all the way to prison; to the rebellious Abdourahman Waberi. To Juan Rulfo and Pedro Paramo, and his short stories El llano en llamas, and the simple and tragic photographs he took of rural Mexico. To John Reed for Insurgent Mexico; to Jean Meyer who was the spokesman for Aurelio Acevedo and the Cristeros insurgents of central Mexico. To Luis González, author of Pueblo en vilo. To John Nichols, who wrote about the bitter land of The Milagro Beanfield War; to Henry Roth, my neighbour on New York Street in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for Call it Sleep. To Jean-Paul Sartre, for the tears contained in his play Morts sans sépulture. To Wilfred Owen, the poet who died on the banks of the Marne in 1914. To J.D. Salinger, because he succeeded in putting us in the shoes of a young fourteen-year-old boy named Holden Caulfield...

And he goes on! This is a determinedly de-centered list of affiliations and masters, in which Sartre is permitted only amidst many writers of Africa and Latin America. It is not for nothing, though, that the first African name on the list is of a fellow Nobel Laureate...

Le Clézio throws into relief the degree to which the apparently global tributes of the other literature laureates are by and large European. One more partial exception, however, is Walcott, who lays out a pan-Antillean set of affiliations in Naipaul, C.L.R. James, Saint-John Perse, Jean Rhys. Still, send another royalty check to Pascale Casanova: in general, the laureates look either to their own national literature or to European canons; such is the hierarchical organization of world literary space, with the Europe-arbitrated "universality" at the top and the national subspaces underneath. We may well suspect the Swedish Academy of consciously or unconsciously preferring laureates that affiliate themselves with the European canon; but that preference remains to be explained. Is it straightforward Eurocentrism? Is it a reflection of which writers are able to attain international notice and prestige? Or some other set of biases and confounding factors?

Enough for today. To be continued, again--in the next and last post on this subject, I'll finally discuss my original motivation for looking at these lectures: the persistence or eclipse of ideas of autonomy in literature. That will also be the occasion to note the ways politics does and does not enter into Nobel Prize discourse. À la suite...

Andrew Goldstone's picture
Andrew Goldstone is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. His book, Fictions of Autonomy: Modernism from Wilde to de Man, is published by Oxford University Press. He specializes in twentieth-century literature in English, with interests in modernist and non-modernist writing, literary theory, the sociology of literature, and the digital humanities.