Saturday, 18 October 2014

Who Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature These Days?

The hiatus is over. After two years of awarding the Nobel  Prize for Literature to non-Europeans, the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature is awarded to an European; a Frenchman. Quelle surprise!

The Nobel Prize went to a cuddly Chinese, Mo Yan, in 2012, who was derided by some as an apologist or a puppet of the dictatorial Chinese regime; therefore, presumably, not worthy of the award, which, in the years bygone, was awarded to such luminaries as the Nazi apologist Knut Hamsun. Herta Muller, the 2009 Nobel Laureate, was moved to publically declare that she felt like crying when she heard that Mo Yan had won the award (not because she had anything to say—at least not in the interview she gave—about the literary merits or lack thereof of Mo Yan’s novels, but because of his political leanings; that Mo Yan was not outraged enough (or not at all)  to publically express his outrage of the outrage of the Tiananmen Square in 1989, which outraged many Western intellectuals—and avoided certain incarceration, was unacceptable). One hoped that the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Mo Yan helped Muller to sympathize with many in Rumania, the country of Muller’s birth, who no doubt felt like crying when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for what many in that country regarded as her unreadable paranoid rants against the Communist regime which she passed off as fiction (her rants, that is; not the Communist regime, which was very real). In 2013 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Alice Munro, a short story writer of meagre talents who elevated monotony to the level of art. The menu of your local Tandoori will have more variety than Munro’s short stories.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for literature has been awarded to one Patrick Modiano. Why was Modiano awarded the Swedish award?  According to the press-release by the Swedish academy, Modanio got the Nobel

for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”.

What in the name of Allah does this mean? Art of memory   . . . most ungraspable human destinies . . . life-world of occupation . . . Who writes such lines? Does the Swedish academy employ someone on the verge of thought disorder (or has taken long distance course in writing like a patronizing tw*t) to do the press releases? If you search through the entire awful vocabulary of clichés, you’d struggle to come up with something as nonsensical as this.

When I first read this I interpreted “occupation” as activities people do to earn their daily living, to keep themselves occupied etcetera. I was wrong. “Occupation” , here, refers to the occupation of France by Germany during the Second World War. An understandable mistake, you will agree, I hope, if you have not read anything by Modnio, or, for that matter, never heard of him until the Nobel committee decided to confer upon him the award, using barely decipherable language.

An article in The Guardian (after Modanio won the award) informed that Modanio delights in mystifying his readers. Is it a short-hand for wooly writing? I wouldn’t know. As I said, I have not read any of Modanio’s novels.

What might increase your chances, these days, of being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Firstly it will help you enormously if you were European or Scandinavian. A glance at the Nobel Laureates in the past twenty years will show that 13 were European (including British & Irish). Of the remaining seven, one is Turkish (Orhan Pamuk), another is Naturalized British of Indian descent who was born in the Caribbean (V.S. Naipaul), while a third one is naturalized French of Chinese descent (Gao Xingjian). Kenzaburo Oe (1994) who is Japanese; J.M. Coetzee (2003), who is South African; Mo Yan (2012), a Chinese; and Alice Munro (2013), who is Canadian, are the only authors in the last twenty years to have won the Nobel, who can be said to have no European connection.

Have you heard of J.M.G. Le Clezio? I thought not. He won the Nobel in 2008. He is the author of “new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy”. He is the “explorer of the humanity beyond and below [but not above or sideways] the reigning civilization”. I bought, on an impulse, three books of the “author of new departures”, hoping to find the promised sensual ecstasy. I am sorry to say that I couldn’t find it despite using the most powerful microscope, in the only novel of Le Clezio (his debut novel) I have read till date. Would I find it in the other two novels which I bought? Possibly, but I am not going to risk it. I am thinking of flogging the novels on the Amazon. 

Herta Muller, who won the Nobel the year after Le Clezio, is a writer “who with the concentration of poetry and frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”  (What is “concentration of poetry”?) The two novels of Muller which I have read (one of which I have reviewed on this blog) were almost as unreadable as those of Le Cleizo, but less abstruse in their themes. Muller is a writer (both the novels dealt with the plight of ethnic German in Communist Rumania after the Second World War, so Muller does write about the dispossessed) who takes boredom to unheard of levels. This is a writer who will give you an eye-witness account of the Crucifixion and can still put you to sleep. 

Imre Kertezsz, who won the award in 2003 has had a 3-4 of his novels translated into English, of which I have read a couple. Fateless, Kertesz’s autobiographical work of fiction (? A fictional memoir) was outstanding, but the next one I read, Kaddish for an Unborn Child where an unnamed narrator explains why he chose never to have children was a masterclass in abject misery and self-pity. When you finally reach the end of this 80-odd pages novella, the only reason you don’t strangle the moaning whingeing, self-obsessed narrator is because you are too  exhausted by the ponderous style (either of the translator or Kertesz) to do anything other than totter into a dark room and wash down some paracetamol with Jack Daniel's and lie down for the next five hours.

This brings me to the second criterion. In addition to having some connection to Europe, you must make efforts to write on subjects no one is interested in, and in a style that is a cure for treatment resistant insomnia. Your novels cannot, under any circumstances, be accused of having a story or a narrative structure.

The third, and most important, criterion is that you are not allowed to be American. If you are an American novelist hoping to be considered for the Nobel, just forget it. It’s not gonna happen, at least not any time soon. The last American to win the Nobel was Toni Morrison, who won the award in 1993. There were those who thought Updike ought to have been awarded the Nobel. Well he wasn't. The trouble with Updike was that for the best part of his career he wrote novels that were accessible, enjoyable, and which people took the trouble to read. He tried to make up for this shortcoming by writing a series of novels, in the later part of his writing career, which were about nothing in particular and not particularly easy to read. But that was not good enough (too little, too late); he was never going to be on par with the likes of Le Cleizo and Muller. Not surprising, really; you can’t expect a toaster, after a life-time of making crunchy toasts, to become a washing machine; it might try, and you might applaud the effort; but it is not going to be good at it.  Updike died unawarded.

These days I read, from time to time, how Philip Roth is thought by many (mostly Americans) to be a worthy Nobel winner, and how it is a shame that he continues to be ignored. Well Roth is not European; so tough luck. He also suffers from the fatal flaw of having written countless novels which were funny, extremely readable, thought provoking, and, mostly, of high quality. He might consider (like Updike) changing his writing style and attempt writing something that would inspire the hacks at the Nobel committee to describe his writing as something that depicts the universality of myth (richly and inventively, I hasten to add), imbued with poetic intensity, and showing deep awareness of the human condition. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. (Indeed Roth has declared that he is through with writing novels. Nemesis, his 2009 novel is going to be his last novel, Roth has announced.) And, as a Philip Roth fan, I would not have wanted him to do it anyway. Would you ask your favourite chef who specializes in making mouth-watering, succulent, rich (and fattening)) roast beef to make a tofu dish, which, nutritional it might be, will have the taste and texture of office furniture?