Friday, 14 November 2008

Are American Authors Insular?

Below is a list of the Nobel laureates in literature in the past fifteen years.

2008 - Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
2007 - Doris Lessing
2006 - Orhan Pamuk
2005 - Harold Pinter
2004 – Elfriede Jelinek
2003 - J. M. Coetzee
2002 - Imre Kertész
2001 - V. S. Naipaul
2000 - Gao Xingjian
1999 - Günter Grass
1998 - José Saramago
1997 - Dario Fo
1996 - Wislawa Szymborska
1995 - Seamus Heaney
1994 - Kenzaburo Oe

Is there anything about the list that thrusts into your attention? Here is a clue:

2008 winner—Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio— is French.

2007 winner—Doris Lessing—is of English ancestry: born in Iran, raised in what was then Rhodesia, she lives in the United Kingdom and is a British citizen.

2006 winer—Orhan Pamuk—is Turkish. He is not exactly Mr. Popular in Turkey for his views about Turkey’s treatment of Armenians around the time of the First World War.

2005 winner—Harold Pinter—is English, and lives in the UK.

2004 winner—Elfriede Jelinek—is Austrian.

2003 winner—J.M. Coetzee—is a South African of European ancestry; he now lives in Australia.

2002 winner—Imre Kertesz—is Hungarian.

2001 winner—V.S. Naipaul is of Indian ancestry; he was born in Trinidad; he came to England when he was 18 and has lived in that country all his life. He is a British citizen.

2000 winner—Gao Xingjian—was born in China, but has lived in France for many years, in exile. Like Pamuk, he has incurred the wrath of the government of his parent country because of his controversial political views.

1999 winner—Gunter Grass—is German.

1998 winner—Jose Saramago—is Portuguese.

1997 winner—Dario Fo—is Italian.

1996 winner—Wislawa Szymborska—is Polish.

1995 winner—Seamus Heaney—is Irish

1994 winner—Kenzaburo Oe—is Japanese. He lives in Japan.

Has the penny dropped? It has? Good! So you have noticed that there are rather a lot of European authors lining up the list. All except one of the Nobel winners in the past fifteen years either are Europeans or have European connection. Kenzaburo Oe, who won more than a decade ago, is the only one amongst these worthies who has no European connection. Surprised? What is not so surprising is that men outnumber women by a ratio of one to four.

Let us concentrate a bit on the preponderance of European authors among the Nobel winners in the past fifteen years, or, the relative paucity of writers from other parts of the world, if you prefer to look at it from a different angle. There are not many American authors in this list; in fact, there is none. Does it matter? Probably no more than the fact that African, Australian, Russian, Indian, Chinese, and Latin American writers are also conspicuous by their absence. For the record, the last Australian author to win the Nobel was Patrick White, in 1973 (and he was a naturalised Australian, having been born and bred in England); the last Latin American was Octavio Paz, a Mexican, who won in 1990; and the last African was the Nigerian Wole Soyinka, in 1986. Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) is the last author, to date, from the Middle East to win the one million dollar (or is it euro now?), in 1988. No Russian author has been awarded the Nobel after 1970 (when Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who, as it happened, was living in exile in the USA, won it, as much for his literary talent as for his anti-Soviet stance ). The last (and to date the only) time an Indian hit the literary jackpot was almost a century ago, when the poet Rabindranath Tagore (who holds the distinction of having his poems chosen by two countries—India in 1947 and Bangla Desh in 1971—as their national anthems), enthusiastically promoted by W.B. Yeats (who won the award himself ten years later), won it; and, astonishing as it may seem, no Chinese has been deemed good enough to merit it. What about Naipaul and Xingjian, I hear you asking. While it is true that Naipaul is of Indian ancestry (which he acknowledged in his Nobel acceptance speech) and has written his celebrated (and controversial) trilogy on India, he was not born in India, neither has he lived in the land of his ancestors. Born in the Indian community in Trinidad, Naipaul has lived all his adult life in England, and been a British citizen for decades. Rudyard Kipling, the first British writer to win the Nobel, was probably more Indian than Naipaul—he was born in Bombay and lived in India for while (and no one will make the mistake of considering the Imperialist Kipling, who, like many other European Nobel Laureates, has sunk into well-deserved obscurity, Indian). Xinjiang, as we shall see later, is a persona non grata in China; he has lived in exile in France for more than twenty years, and is a French (albeit naturalized) citizen.

Indeed, if one looks at the 101-year history of the Nobel Prize in literature and its winners, only thirty-one are from outside of Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic. If anything, the Nobel has become more global in the past sixty years; in the first fifty years of the award, only five were outside of Europe and Scandinavia. Of the thirty-one non-European authors who have been awarded the Nobel, ten—almost one third— are Americans. (Of the ten, at least three were naturalised Americans including Joseph Brodsky, who, like Xingjian, had left his home country, the USSR, for political reasons.)

Last year, after Doris Lessing won the Nobel, the whole raft her novels, several of which were out of print for years, were re-circulated, reminding the buyers, in bold letters, that the author was the winner of the Nobel Prize. Therefore, presumably, winning the award, in addition to the manna attached to it, also boosts the sales of the winner’s books. However, it is not just that. Over the decades, winning the Nobel has somehow come to represent the acme of a writer’s career. Almost all the novels of V.S. Naipaul, published before his Nobel, made it a point to mention that he had won all the literary awards except the Nobel. It obviously mattered to Naipaul that the award had eluded him.

The Nobel has become controversial for a number of reasons. In 2001 V.S. Naipaul became the first British author in almost twenty years—after William Golding, who was awarded the prize in 1983—to be awarded with what many think has become a political award. Some suggested at the time that Naipaul—considered by many to be the finest British author writing in English—was presented the award not so much for his awesome literary output over the years—many are of the view that Sir Vidya should have won years ago—as for his alleged anti-Islamic views (his two travelogues—Among the Believers and its sequel, Beyond Belief -are deemed by those (who are always on the lookout for evidence that will confirm their prejudices) to be an averment of Naipaul’s anti-Muslim prejudice) which became fashionable again in the West on the backdrop of anti-Muslim sentiments sweeping through Europe and the Western world after September 11. A year before Naipaul, Gao Xingjian, a till then little-known Chinese author (but not just that; he is also a dramatist, critic and artist), who had been living in exile in France since the late 1980s (he has held French citizenship since 1998), and whose work in China apparently came to a halt after he wrote a play against the backdrop of what is referred to in the Western media as the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese were not amused and dubbed the award a political manoeuvre, which it probably was. (The Chinese, it has to be said, were somewhat ungracious, and dropped oblique hints that Xingjian was probably not a Nobel material, and would not have won it but for the political angle.) The fact that one Goran Malamquist, who has translated and produced Xingjian’s plays in Stockholm, is on the panel that makes the selection of Nobel Laureates, may also have helped Xingjian. In 2005, Orhan Pamuk, the outspoken Turkish author, incurred the wrath of the Turkish government and many Turkish nationalists by his comments about what Turkey refuses to acknowledge, officially, the Armenian genocide of the 1915 and Turkey’s treatment of the Kurdish separatists. He was taken to courts for insulting Turkishness and, had he been found guilty, would have faced a jail-sentence. Overnight Pamuk became the darling of the Western and European media which became self-righteously indignant over the affair—Salman Rushdie railed against the oppression of free speech in Turkey—and, lo and behold, the very next year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Coincidence? I think not. This disposition of the Nobel committees is not new, however. Nobel committees, over decades, seem to have taken a le malin plaisir in awarding the prize to rebel authors emerging from other, non-European / non-Western, societies and cultures which, or the regimes ruling over these cultures, are deemed to be at odds with the European / Western value systems. These winners—be it Bunin or Solzhenistyn or Brodsky—at the time the honour was bestowed upon them—were living in the West, in exile. (This augurs well for Kundera and Llohsa.)

It should, therefore, not be excessively surprising that the Russians and the Chinese and the Turks have found themselves in less than fulsome agreement with the Nobel committees over their choices. Now, bizarrely enough, the American literati find themselves in a state of agitation—somewhere between dudgeon and umbrage—over the decisions of the Nobel selection committee, for very different reasons. Of late, American authors, as mentioned earlier, are conspicuous by their absence in the list of Nobel winners. Now their worst suspicions are confirmed. Horace Engdahl, the top member of the award jury for the Nobel Prize for Literature, has delivered his judgment. American authors, Engdahl has declared, are too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture. ‘The US,’ Horace has discovered, ‘is too isolated; too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. This ignorance is restraining.’ So the Swedish dude (as I believe Americans like to refer to male adults of different age groups) has puked all over the smorgasboard (if you allow me to mix my metaphors) of American literature, and the NY Mag hacks are very unhappy on behalf of Philip Roth and John Updike, whose chances of winning the Nobel, in light of Engdhal’s helpful comments, seem to be about as good as the second coming of Christ (which is particularly sad for Updike, who, by dint of having produced his best work forty years ago and being old—like Pinter and Lessing—, one would have thought, qualifies for it). Long lists of contemporary great American authors few have heard of (outside of America)are produced, accompanied by the penetrating observation that theEuropean Nobel winners are virtually unknown outside of Europe. All of which, to some, may appear as avowing what Engdhal has (rightly or wrongly) accused them of. Of course, we are insular; that is what makes us great. (And, if you think that it is a bit like saying, of course, ocean is wet, you would not be the only one.)

Let’s have a look at Engdhal’s condemnation of American literature—because that is what it is; Engdhal, when he made these remarks was animadverting. He says that the US is too isolated, too insular. Not having read very many US authors I do not know what to make of what sounds like a sweeping generalisation. I would say that most authors educe their subject matter from the environs they know best; and, for most of us the environs we know best are the ones in which we live. If one tries to write about cultures we do not have a firsthand experience of, would it ring true? David Gutterson made this point, albeit indirectly, in a literary festival. When asked what he had to say to Engdhal’s charge that American authors are insular, he answered, quite unapologetically, that he put his hand up to the charge; he wrote about things he felt comfortable about. Naipaul and Lessing, the two recent British Nobel Laureates, have written about different cultures, but then they had the experience of living in and travelling through different cultures, and that is why, perhaps, their stories ring true. (It is also true that both of them have produced high quality work that has universal significance.

It is plain daft to assume that works which are local (in the sense that they are geographically specific) are ipso facto lacking in universal relevance. Take for example the works of the 2002 Nobel winner Imre Kertesz. Some of Kertesz’s greatest fictional output is closely linked to his own experience in the German (Nazi) concentration camps. Kertesz would not have been able to write Sorstalanság (translated into English as Fatelessness) if he had not survived Auschwitz. Fatelessness, a work of fiction, is an intensely personal account of an adolescent boy who goes through the horrors of the Nazi death camps. Although resolutely specific in its attentions, the Nobel jurors, very appropriately, recognized the universal themes emerging from Kertesz’s narratives, and awarded him the Nobel for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history. Therefore, it is not as though the Nobel Jurors are incapable of looking beyond the immediacy of geographical location in which the narrative is set. So, when Engdhal accuses of American writers of insularity, he is suggesting that he cannot find anything of significance in the writings of American authors that touches the wider human condition. This is nonsense. Even those, who have read only the internationally acclaimed American writers—Roth, Ford, and McCarthy to name just three whose writing clearly transcends national boundaries—, will find his assertion hard to swallow. To return to the point David Gutterson made, it is absurd to consider that a ‘provincial’ novel is somehow less elevated than a ‘universal’ novel. I have enjoyed many an American novel for their unabashed Americanness than those with universal pretensions. A great novel—Jonathan Franzen’s Correction is a case in point—always finds its way to the wider human condition via the specific. The Great Russian writers of the twentieth century—Pasternak and Sholokhov, who are widely known outside of Russia—and they both were awarded the Nobel—wrote books deeply rooted in their cultural and social milieu.

Engdhal’s other accusation is that Americans do not translate enough; one assumes that the non-English works Engdhal has in mind are European. I should doubt very much whether Engdhal is bothered whether the Americans are translating enough non-European writers. The winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, the thirteenth Frenchman to get the accolade and first since 1985 (if one excludes Xingjian), is an author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization, according to the Nobel Committee. While the English language readers have no reason to doubt the judgment of the Nobel Jurors—apparently Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio is a well known and respected literary figure in France—they are, at present not in a position to draw their independent conclusions about the merits of the Nobel Laureate, because his works have not been available in the UK, the only English-speaking country in Europe. Therefore, America is not only English speaking that does not translate enough.

It is also interesting that Engdhal picked out American literature for his criticism and proffered his wisdom as to why no American writer has won the Nobel for more than a decade, when it is not only that continent but almost all other parts of the world, except Europe, have been ignored. Americans are not the only ones subjected to Engdhal’s sweeping generalisations. He dishes out a different set of prejudice against non-Western cultures. This is what he has to say about them: ‘Europe respects the independence of literature and can serve as a safe haven. Very many authors who have their roots in other countries work in Europe, because it is only here where you can be left alone and write, without being beaten to death. It is dangerous to be an author in big parts of Asia and Africa.’ Like all irrational biases, there is a kernel of truth in this, but what Engdhal does is he takes it as a springboard and makes outrageously inaccurate value judgments about Africa and Asia. Implicit in Engdhal’s pronouncement on large parts of Africa and Asia is his view on the literary integrity of those who have chosen to live there and the quality of their work. One wonders whether Engdhal realises how offensive such utterances are. Probably he does, and does not care. Perhaps other continents are not on Engdhal’s radar, cocooned as he is—like a crab under a rock, cheerfully contented in its limited universe, feeling no desire to explore the wide sea spread in front—in his belief that ‘Europe is still the centre of the literary world.’ The conceited, overweening Eurocentric swagger of Engdhal and his uppity trumpery reveal more about his profound anti-America bias, and ignorance (or disdain, or both) of non-European literature than the insularity of American literature. It is not the US, but Engdhal, who is insular, narrow minded, parochial, and ignorant.

Should it matter what Engdhal thinks of American literature? Not unless, perhaps, you are Philip Roth, and expecting the Nobel. Roth—you can bet your mortgage on it—is not going to win the award so long as the Swede has a say on the matter. But then, may be, Roth—who, together with Joyce Carol Oates, was said to be on this year’s secret five-person short-list for the Nobel—holds the same view about the Nobel as Saul Bellow, who, when he heard the news that he had been awarded the 1976 Nobel, is said to have remarked that while he was glad to have it, he could have lived without it. Roth is a great writer, an iconic figure in literature, like Conrad, Nabokov, and Scott Fitzgerald before him (to name just a few who wrote in English who are missing from the Nobel list), whose work will outlast that of many a Nobel Laureate.

Book of the Month: Pictures of Fidelman (Bernard Malmud)

Bernard Malmud was one of America’s most important novelists and short-story writers. His metier was depiction of Jewish lives, which he described poignantly and with grand lugubriousness in novels such as The Assistant and The Fixer, which won the 1966 Pulitzer award.

Pictures of Fidelman was the first book Malmud published after the Pulitzer-winning The Fixer. In it he ventures away from his usual, inner-city Jewish element, and tries a different canvas. It is a picaresque tale of sometimes-comic escapades of Arthur Fidelman, a self-confessed failure as a painter, who arrives in Italy to prepare a critical study of Giotto. In six chapters, which function entirely independently from each other, and which are only tenuously linked thematically, the reader learns what befalls the hapless and, at times, witless protagonist as he moves from Rome to Milan, and, following a brief hiatus in Naples, ends up in Venice: he is pursued on the streets of Rome by an exiled Israeli; he flagellantly falls in love with a woman who refuses to sleep with him, indeed humiliates him at every turn, until he paints her as Maddona; he gets blackmailed by a couple of brothel-owners into purloining Titian’s Venous of Urbino; he shacks up with a whore and even acts as her pimp while at the same time struggling to complete a long-cherished picture of himself and his mother; and finally, in Venice, he sleeps, first, with a woman he meets there, and then with her homosexual husband, while learning the art of glass-blowing—a peculiar pun on Malmud’s part, this—before returning to America, presumably a wiser—or is he, really?— man.

All but one of the six chapters, or stories, of Pictures of Fidelman were published separately over a period of ten years—Malmud felt obliged to explain why he had chosen these apparently disparate stories to publish as a single work—and perhaps because of this the novel has a somewhat contrived feel to it; the situations described in the chapters do not appear to arise naturally. However the Malmudian theme of acquiring self-knowledge and attaining, epiphanetically, a higher, noble plane through suffering is apparent here, too, albeit less convincingly and lacking the moral breadth of Malmud’s other, some might say weightier, works.

Pictures of Fidelman, in many ways, is vintage Malmud: punning and wise-cracking and soul uplifting. It is also somewhat different, not just in respect of its setting, but also in respect of Malmud’s almost mischievous bedimming—the chapter titled Pictures of the Artist, for example, is a peculiar assemblage of quotations and maunderings about art, truth, and devil among other things. The novel echoes themes of violence, confusion and, occasionally, breathtaking imagination. Malmud, like other great authors, had his special way with words, using them subversively so as to yield a unique flavour to the narrative.

Much of Malmud’s fiction, at some level, reflects his immigrant Jewish background and mingles history and fantasy, and comedy and tragedy. The juxtaposition of the grotesque and sublime gives Pictures of Fidelman, despite its flaws, a unique ambience.

Saul Bellow said of Malmud: ‘The accent of a hard-won and individual emotional truth is always heard in Malmud’s words. He is a rich original of first rank.’ How true.