A recent essay that I saw in Jacobin Magazine discussed the futility and politically problematic nature of the Nobel Prize’s attempt to separate its prizes in literature from the political motives of the Prize’s recipients and the political nature of their works. Their brief, poetic abstracts that the Nobels publish with their literature awards justify their choice by references to the general human condition and gestures to universality.
Artists and their works are never described in terms of their singular situations and their political realities are marginalized. As the article’s author Sarah Brouillette writes, understanding art as apolitical is itself a political act, the silencing of an artwork’s political meaning and a creator’s political voice.
The Nobel committee in 1988 wrote about Naguib Mahfouz, "who, through works rich in nuance - now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous - has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.” The emphasis is on how his work applies to all of humanity, but the singular situation of his work is subtly discussed. While the Nobel committee shies away from political descriptions of its award winners, so many of the winners’ works are fantastically politically relevant.
|Reading her work teaches you that Elfriede|
Jelinek is not a woman to be fucked with.
In 2004, the Nobel Literature committee gave its prize to Elfriede Jelinek "for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power.” Yeah, I don’t really know what that means either.
But here’s my experience of reading Jelinek’s masterpiece Greed: a strident, enraged, beautifully articulate voice yelling at me for 300 sublimely shrill pages about the evil that self-absorbed men do when they trip on sexual and institutional power. It’s the story of a police officer who’s carrying on affairs with multiple women who all feel inferior to him because of his physical attractiveness and prowess, and he’s turned on by their self-hatred. He accidentally kills a 15 year old girl while she’s going down on him, dumps her body in a lake, and enlists his older, overweight lover to help him cover up the crime. It’s an uncompromisingly brutal depiction of physical, psychological, and social violence against women. I have never read a more powerful feminist voice.
Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright and poet who’s spent years speaking out against the brutality of war and politics in his homeland, and has gone to prison there for his trouble. He is still a powerful critic of Nigerian and wider African politics today, denouncing widespread fraud, corruption, and violence. His art helps articulate how the injustices of colonialism and the gangsterism and partisanship of the political culture that supplanted it assault the dignity of humanity, and how that dignity perseveres through even the most terrible tortures. Like a Nigerian prison in the 1960s.
Yeah, the Nobel committee described his art as existing “in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence,” whatever pablum that means. Then you research what Soyinka wrote, what he did, and what he continues to do as one of a continent’s greatest authors, and you start to understand what some of the real criteria are for this award.
John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He wrote The Grapes of Wrath. How much more political and confrontational do you want than Rose laying aside her dead infant from her breast to feed a desperate fellow homeless person? Speaking of the uncompromising view of America’s injustices by its greatest writers, Toni Morrison. Her masterpiece Beloved literally depicts the destruction that slavery wrought on black Americans, a single family of former slaves liberated by Lincoln expressing the horror and anguish of a whole country.
|Seriously. Soul Mountain is a masterpiece. Read it.|
Gao Xingjian is one of my favourite authors, and Soul Mountain is a book that deserves to be read for thousands of years. He was hunted by the Cultural Revolution, forced to burn a trunk full of manuscripts to survive the cataclysm that rocked Chinese society. His absurdist theatre was so provocative to the official dogma of the Chinese government that he eventually found himself better off living in France. Gao’s work is profound enough to speak to many strange dimensions in all people, but his life and the social ramifications of his work in his home country speak to the experience of the political exile and the dissident.
So while the rhetoric of the Nobel Prize in recent years has focussed on a vision of art and aesthetic creation as apolitical, transcendent, and removed from the dangerous, volatile, social conditions from which works and artists emerge, the reality of who gets chosen for the Literature prize belies a simple reading like this.
Perhaps in Europe, a land where liberalism has become a tired old political faith, the notion that art achieves vibrancy and greatness when it has an eye on justice is too controversial for an award like the Nobel Prize to accept openly. But the political dimensions of so many of its winners are so obvious when you look at their work, it’s easier than you may at first think to look past the flowery emptiness of the committee’s abstracts to the real content of the prizes.
And about Patrick Modiano? I’ve never read his work, but I guess it’s good. The journalists tell me it’s a lot like Marcel Proust, so I think I’ll stick to Proust for now. Enough French writers have won the prize by now. I was a little sad that Philip Roth or Ngugi wa’Thiong’o didn’t get it.