Finally the Nobel Prize For Literature Gets It Right
October 11, 2001 12:12 PM   Subscribe

Finally the Nobel Prize For Literature Gets It Right Jorge Luis Borges didn't get it. Neither did Marcel Proust. But today V.S.Naipaul, arguably the best writer in the English language since Samuel Beckett died, was awarded the Nobel Prize. Doesn't this just show it helps not to be English(e.g. Irish, American, Indian or Trinidadian)to be able to write dry and timeless prose such as Sir Vidia's?
posted by MiguelCardoso (29 comments total)
Unless you're Samuel Johnson or holgate, that is. (Er, please excuse that amateurish URL at the end...)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:23 PM on October 11, 2001

I'm sure Paul Theroux is spitting blood right now.

(and stop feeding my bloody ego, Miguel!)

It's an intriguing question about the success of non-English writers in English. I suspect that using a language that comes from "elsewhere", with all of its baggage, brings an immediate dynamic to an author's work, one attuned to the Great Themes that normally earn you a Nobel. (Is that the case with Brazilian writers?) The current "English novel" is frankly parochial, immured in book-review culture and the London literary scene. (Captain Corelli's Ukulele, anyone?) Rushdie's stale and self-parodying, Amis hasn't written a decent novel since London Fields, etc. Though Zadie Smith shows some promise as long as she doesn't get lured down the Dave Eggers path of archness, and I have a sneaking suspicion that William Boyd is starting to get the recognition he deserves. But yes: Malcolm Bradbury has a lot to answer for, in spawning a generation of middle-brow churners of dinner-party fiction.

I must admit that I've never read any V. S. Naipaul, but my reading has suffered over recent years. I'm still getting through the work of Henry Green, who's possibly the most underrated English novelist of the past century. I do think, though, that the Nobel judges generally make good choices. Heaney, Walcott, Golding: all top-drawer.
posted by holgate at 12:33 PM on October 11, 2001

They should still give it to Borges. So what if he's dead? Bastards.
posted by signal at 12:35 PM on October 11, 2001

Although a posthumous Nobel prize would be odd, if anyone deserves it, it is Borges. Or they could just give it to me, since I dreamed him and had to beg a fire god for weeks just to give him life.
posted by j.edwards at 12:42 PM on October 11, 2001

I really have a problem with an institution that gives the award for Peace to Henry Kissinger, that's all.
The Literature list, well, it's probably less embarrassing (and sometimes those zany Scandinavians help you discover very interesting, somewhat obscure writers like Cela and especially Szymborska -- I knew neither of them before the Award, I'm pretty ashamed to say)
But, I mean, they even waited way too long to give the Economics honor to Haavelmo -- it's a bit like waiting too long to give the Nobel for Aviation to the Wright brothers
posted by matteo at 12:49 PM on October 11, 2001

yes, j.edwards, but like all babylonians I HAVE BEEN BORGES. obviously, it goes to me.
posted by signal at 12:59 PM on October 11, 2001

Miguel & holgate:

I think that English english writing has remained far too focused on the nature of humans within particular societies, for the last hundred years, while the rest of the world has been dealing with more universal, existential themes and technical experiments. I was often told that Evelyn Waugh was the greatest English novelist of the 20th century. He was certainly a good writer, but ultimately a cynical social satirist. Same goes for Martin Amis and Anthony Powell. I had hopes for Julian Barnes, but he seems to have spent too much time literary lunching with his contemporaries. English fiction just stagnated ther for a while. I think it's the lingering product of the Victorian culture, or something. In any case, my favorite British novel of the past 30 years is "1982 Janine" by the Scot Alasdair Gray.
posted by liam at 1:17 PM on October 11, 2001

It's an intriguing question about the success of non-English writers in English. I suspect that using a language that comes from "elsewhere", with all of its baggage, brings an immediate dynamic to an author's work

Kazuo Ishiguro's excellent The Remains of the Day is a good example of this. And I love London Fields, but I also like some of the stuff Amis has done since.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:17 PM on October 11, 2001 [1 favorite]

Matteo - you're right. I have to secretly confess there are two exceptional authors I wouldn't have known about if it weren't for the Nobel Prize(though Camilo José Cela I find even more scandalous than Kissinger). One is Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian Nazi who wrote like an angel. His "Victoria" is my favourite novella, no contest. And the other is Yasunari Kawabata. His short stories, even in translation, are stupefying. They're usually very brief - a few words - but they feel like War and Peace without the waffle. Hell, they feel like even Chekhov's briefest story without the unnecessary bits - they're that good!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 1:17 PM on October 11, 2001

I agree about the award to Kissinger. What were they thinking?

I wonder if the situation is similar in France/Belgium, Holland, what with the Middle Eastern, African, Pacific colonies they had? Are the former colonies producing extraordinary writers in those languages?

Spanish literature is currently well-mixed between Spain, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina.
posted by mmarcos at 1:19 PM on October 11, 2001

I'm sure Paul Theroux is spitting blood right now.

this was my first thought too. i recently finished between father and son, a book of early letters between naipaul & his family when he was at university and in his early twenties. it's a great read.
posted by judith at 1:20 PM on October 11, 2001

" I really have a problem with an institution that gives the award for Peace to Henry Kissinger, that's all."
Hahaha..!!!! Thanks for that! I agree.

Which leads my meandering mind to another question: Will Time make Osama "Man of The Year?" :)

I might take exception to the "finally got it right" part. I truly enjoyed Soul Mountain by Gao XiangXing and he won a Nobel for Literature. The book opened my mind to the diversity of the Chinese people that had previously been Mao'ed to believe they were more or less homogenous.
posted by nofundy at 1:21 PM on October 11, 2001

Miguel, which of Yasunari Kawabata's books would you recommend?

(as you people mention these fantastic books, I am scurrying over to and looking them up. I've added two to my wishlist so far)
posted by ColdChef at 1:35 PM on October 11, 2001

Samuel Beckett probably got his more for his theatre in French than his stuff in English but for me his novel trilogy is his best. Apart from Proust, the two other pillars of the novels in the 20th century (for many) Joyce and Kafka didn't get it either. In fairness to the Academy, Kafka was unknown when he died, Proust died too soon after the last of Recherche came out and Joyce was too controversial (sex-wise, not use-of-language wise) at the time. I think Borges didn't get it for his support of the Junta in Argentina. There are some great ones there though, Yeats right smack in the middle of his greatest decade being the best for me. Never read any Naipul but seeing as he calls the Catalan arrogant for complaining about century-long persecution of their language, I'm not enticed. Cela would have agreed, for him there are only four languages that matter in the world, you can all guess them and luckily enough for him he spoke one, otherwise he wouldn't have spoken such bullshit.
BTW anybody got any links to the rumour (urban legend?) that there's no prize for maths because Nobel's wife was having an affair with a leading mathematician and he didn't want him to get it (the prize that is).
posted by Zootoon at 1:52 PM on October 11, 2001

Amazon comes up trumps with its list of Nobel Literature laureates. (Is Saramago worth reading, Miguel?) And yes, it's a good way to introduce yourself to unsung authors -- Haldor Laxness being my discovery, courtesy of Magnus Magnusson's translation....
posted by holgate at 1:56 PM on October 11, 2001

“V. S. Naipaul is a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself, in his inimitable voice. Singularly unaffected by literary fashion and models he has wrought existing genres into a style of his own, in which the customary distinctions between fiction and non-fiction are of subordinate importance.”

...from the Swedish Academy's press release, announcing Naipul's selection.
posted by bragadocchio at 3:35 PM on October 11, 2001

Is Saramago worth reading, Miguel?

I'm no Miguel, but I know what I like, and I love Saramago. All the Names was gorgeous. I need to go back and read Blindness again - at the time I was so astounded I kept turning pages almost before I was done with them. The Last Days of Ricardo Reis didn't do much for me (I think that's the right title), but The Tale of the Unknown Island is a perfect little jewel.
posted by gleuschk at 3:46 PM on October 11, 2001

I've only read A Bend in the River. I wouldn't have awarded a Nobel on the basis of that one.
posted by rushmc at 5:01 PM on October 11, 2001

rushmc - try In a Free State (fiction - 1971) and Finding the Centre (essays -1986).
posted by philfromhavelock at 5:42 PM on October 11, 2001

I'm more of a novel person, but I'll keep my eyes out for them. Thanks for the tip.
posted by rushmc at 9:13 PM on October 11, 2001

from the Amazon list, countries with at least three literature winners:
France 12
USA 10
Germany 8
UK 8
Italy 6
Spain 5
Sweden 4
Ireland 3
Poland 3
Norway 3
posted by drunkkeith at 10:35 PM on October 11, 2001

What an eye-opener, drunkkeith. That's a fairly acceptable little list of the best literatures in the West. But, in the name of language, you should add USA's 10 to UK's 8 to, er, get those pretentious frogs outta first place.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:36 PM on October 11, 2001

Drunkenkeith: Milosz was a Pole, Singer was a foreigner who often didn't write in English, Eliot left the U.S. and became a British citizen. Are we counting them as American Nobels, too?
posted by matteo at 7:10 AM on October 12, 2001

There are a huge number of quality English novelists at the moment. Ian McEwan, Beryl Bainbridge, Sebastian Faulks, Susan Hill, Jeannette Winterson (gone off a bit, admittedly). I would say Will Self but I had a go at one of his books and gave up after the first chapter.

The only reason there aren't more is because too much shelf space is given to the neon covered, straight to paperback tube fodder that fills up Waterstones and Books etc.

The death of the English novel is always being announced and it always turns out not to be true. You can't judge these things till 50 years down the line anyway.
posted by Summer at 7:56 AM on October 12, 2001

Ian McEwan is god. (or glod). Seriously, read 'Atonement' and 'Enduring Love'. He's a cracking writer and in his best work blurs the difference between fiction and reality in truly alarming and surprising ways. In my opinion he's the best living English english writer and the best advert for a creative writing course ever.

Will self is a great writer, but not a great novelist. Listen to his saturday essays on Radio4's Today program (alternate weeks only, beware you might end up with humerious rightwing loony and 'page turner' Frederick Forsyth) and you'll see a witty and clever man. He just doesn't seem to be able to translae the mastery of his shoter writing into a compelling novel.
posted by nedrichards at 8:55 AM on October 12, 2001 [1 favorite]

Matteo: now I must disagree. Great writers, such as those you refer to, whatever language they write in, are still great in translation. I don't think Singer ever wrote in English - but who understands Yiddish?
Nationality is not the point. Probably not even language. It's universality; genius; invention. we shouldn't "count" artists. Was Kafka Czech? Mondrian Belgian?
Anything worth saying can be translated. Language and nation-fixation are enemies of literature.

The things they write about - love, death, laughing, friendship, life - are beyond all that shit. So, however I may criticize the Nobel prize, it would be churlish to deny it brings our attention to writers we might have otherwise missed.

Summer: your list, apart from Bainbridge, could not be more off-putting. And even she is resolutely minor. There are dozens of excellent English writers and you seem to have avoided almost all of them. But your point still stands, I suppose. Embarrassment of riches and all that.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:09 AM on October 12, 2001

It's what I like Miguel. I like understated writers who tell small tales. I can't be doing with the likes of Don Delillo who are self-consiously writing about 'the age'. And Ian McEwan IS god, there is no doubt about that. Iain Banks is fantastic as well but he's Scottish.
posted by Summer at 9:19 AM on October 12, 2001

Delillo. Gag.
posted by rushmc at 11:01 PM on October 12, 2001

Kazuo Ishiguro's excellent The Remains of the Day is a good example of this.

I love Ishiguro and his work to bits, but I have to disagree with kirkaracha on that for the simple reason that Ishiguro is an English writer, born and bred.
posted by lia at 4:07 AM on October 14, 2001

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