Nobel Prize Winners Read and Unread

I’ve never placed a bet on the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I’ve taught myself not to have any expectations. I’m merely pleased or displeased (and there are different levels for both – dare I call them tiers? – sorry, bad joke, as UK residents will tell me). Occasionally, I’m very puzzled. However, I’m always happy when poetry gets recognised, as it tends to be underrepresented, and I’ve read and admired Louise Glück before. So I was slightly surprised but not at all disappointed.

Nevertheless, this post is about Nobel Prize winners of the past. I brazenly stole the idea from Susana, who posted what she thought of certain past Nobel Prize winners. Which got me wondering how many of them I have on my shelves… the answer is twenty, see picture below (I am currently unable to locate my T.S. Eliot, but know it’s in the house somewhere).

I know quite a few more lurk on my parents’ shelves or in boxes somewhere in their house. This got me wondering further which of the Nobel winners I’ve read over the course of my life, and whether I read them because they were winners.

I think I can safely say most of the ones I have on my shelf were discovered in another context, often before they won the Nobel Prize or before I realised that they had. Bunin or Gide, for example, caught me by surprise, I’d forgotten that they ever won it. There is one exception: one author that I started reading after she won the Nobel Prize and after I read her acceptance speech. You might find it surprising, because she comes from the same country as I do originally: Herta Müller. She was initially banned in Communist Romania, partly because of her militant activism for freedom of speech and partly because she dared to emigrate. Even after the fall of Communism, she remained unpopular in Romania, accused of exaggerating her persecution, or of ‘fouling the nest’ (very much like Thomas Bernhard in Austria). However, I have heard her speak of Romania and in particular about the Romanian language, and I detected much affection and respect for the land and its culture. It’s only the political system and those in power that she disagreed with – as we all did, but she was braver than most in opposing it.

My favourites among these? Camus, Canetti, Tokarczuk (although I’ve only read two of her books thus far), Herta Müller, Szymborska and Oe Kenzaburo. But I haven’t read Naguib Mahfouz yet (he was supposed to be one of my #1953Club reads, but I ran out of time) or Saramago.

Of the 117 winners, most fall into the category: ‘read a few things by them, don’t own anything‘. Some of them were more popular with my parents’ generation, so I read them in my childhood/adolescence and then they simply faded out of view (Romain Rolland, Pearl Buck, Anatole France and Galsworthy, for example). With others, I’ve read plenty but they were easily available in libraries, so I never felt the urge to buy my own: Saul Bellow, Kipling, Nadine Gordimer, Hesse, G.B. Shaw, Pinter, Golding, Marquez. A few I simply did not want to take further than one book: sorry, Grazia Deledda, Roger Martin Du Gard, Sienkewicz or Patrick White. But there are some in this category that I’m simply not sure why they have no presence on my shelves. I could certainly envisage spending money on them at some point in the future: Toni Morrison, Thomas Mann, Pirandello, Elfriede Jelinek, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz.

The final category are the Great Unread. 37 of the 117 prize winners, so about a third. I notice they are mainly the Scandinavians (I have to admit there is a gap in my knowledge there, but perhaps also because not a lot have been translated): Bjørnstjerne Martinus Bjørnson, Mommsen, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, Erik Axel Karlfeldt and so on. Another big gap in my knowledge are those writing in the Spanish language. I’ve never even heard of most of them, let alone read them: Jacinto Benavente, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Asturias, Vicente Aleixandre – or, I may have heard of them but never quite got around to reading them, like Gabriela Mistral. Italians are also a bit of blind spot for me: Eugenio Montale, Dario Fo, Carducci. And there is one French writer that I have never even attempted – and I’m not quite sure why. I just assumed he would not be my cup of tea: Le Clézio.

How have you fared with Nobel Prize winning writers? Meh or yay? And have you discovered any cultural blind spots, such as I seem to have?

32 thoughts on “Nobel Prize Winners Read and Unread”

  1. Reading this post inspired me to go and look up the list of Nobel laureates – and I have read very few indeed. I think I’ve read around ten – and that includes e.g. Derek Walcott, from whom I’ve read one or two individual poems in anthologies but couldn’t call myself familiar with his work. A lot of them are already on my radar as authors I am hoping to get to, but some of the earlier authors I’ve never heard of at all – so I haven’t just identified one or two gaps, but a huge gaping hole in my knowledge! And a lot of authors to add to my TBR.

    1. Ah, those early ones are truly obscure… and possibly not all of them are translated (or deserve to be read much nowadays). There are clearly political choices at work in many years… and the Nobel Prize committee, as we know, has been tainted at several instances in its lifetime. But still, I used to get so excited about this as a child, and dream of winning it myself one day (when I decided to become a writer, aged 6).

    1. I have an old obsession with the Prize since my childhood – possibly because it was the only international literary prize I’d heard of. I used to dream of winning it some day for Romania… Of course, I have to start writing and publishing first!

    1. Quite a lot of them are very well-known authors that I’d have read anyway, I suspect, but there are some truly obscure ones (of the moment) and it’s certainly a prize where I can see politics at work!

  2. It’s not actually an award I follow closely. (I’m getting less and less interested in awards generally.) So I’m surprised to have read 22 Nobel Laureates – most of those one book only. Frankly, in most cases, that was enough! 7 others in the TBR. I am looking forward to reading some Louise Glück. I like the snippets I’ve read in the last week.

    1. I used to follow it avidly in my childhood (when I was planning to win it myself on behalf of Romania – LOL!), then there was a decade or so when I completely forgot about it, and I’ve been following it more closely the last 10 years or so. It’s neglected some quite wonderful writers, of course, and rewarded some truly obscure ones, but I do appreciate it when it draws attention to an otherwise little-known writer or culture.

  3. So interesting! And d’you know, I’ve never really bothered much to look at who’s won the prize, although looking down the list I can be sure of having read 32 – which is rather nice really! They’re probably the obvious candidates in most cases, so I suspect I need to try to read more widely from the list…

    1. Some of the winners are truly memorable writers, so it’s nice to tick them off the list. And others, quite frankly, deserve obscurity – and are probably unavailable in translation nowadays.

  4. I read the first two books from the Cairo trilogy, and some short stories by Naguib M. I loved the short stories. It took time to acclimatize to the Cairo trilogy, but once I did, I was grateful to have my eyes opened to that work and world. I’ve never been to Egypt, and hope that someday it will be possible. You’ve read so much. I continue to be slow in that department! X

    1. My best friend at school (and deskmate) was Egyptian and I now have an Egyptian colleague at work, so I am profoundly attracted to that culture. Plus the Alexandria quartet, Cavafy the poet etc. etc.

  5. Such a thoughtful post, Marina Sofia! Thanks for sharing your insights. I’m pleased, too, at Glück’s win, although I’m hardly a poetry expert. I like to see poetry get some of the recognition it deserves. I have to admit, I’ve never chosen a Nobel-winning book because it won the prize. As much as I respect the award and what it means, I don’t like to base my reading on who won an award, if that makes sense.

    1. Although I don’t think I’ve read many books simply because they were by Nobel Prize winners, we can’t deny that winning such a high-profile prize raises the visibility of that author (and in some cases of his or her culture), thus facilitating translations. So it’s certainly a bonus that I appreciate!

    1. I think this was one of the few international literary prizes I was aware of in my childhood. The others all seemed not very international: Deutscher Buchpreis, Booker Prize, Pulitzer or National Book Award, Prix Goncourt etc.

    1. I was quite surprised at how many of them I had read – although some of them only one book and a long time ago. I seem to have missed out on most of the playwrights though, for some reason.

  6. Unlike your experience, I’ve never had a particular interest in who wins the Nobel prize in literature and have found the science awards more interesting at the time. But I’m grateful that because of their win writers have their work translated and focused on, especially Wisława Szymborska, Boris Pasternak, Sigrid Undset, José Saramago, and Olga Tokarczuk.

    1. Excellent examples, yes. I should also perhaps have pointed out that my parents had Romanian translations of many of these writers, and that it might have been difficult to find them in English before they won the prize (and even afterwards).

      1. Yes, that’s just it. The US and UK are getting better about bringing more translations out, but earlier it was abysmal. A Nobel win definitely made a difference and I’m grateful for all those who did get translated into English. (The few writers I listed are just some of my personal favorites.)

  7. I don’t usually go out to read Nobel Prize winning authors on purpose, but I did when Alice Munroe won. I liked her short stories but… the ones I read were pretty old, and unfortunately, they didn’t age really well, I’m afraid.

    1. I don’t think there’s any cause for alarm! Just shows that for some parts of the world, the Nobel Prize was perceived to be a guarantee of quality. Since living in an English-speaking country, I find far less of that perception here.

  8. I placed a bet on Margaret Atwood then they cancelled it that year. Won’t do that again! I’ve read just over a handful of Nobel winners: Golding, Marquez, Lessing, Hesse, Bellow, Saramago – and I think that’s probably it. It’s not a prize that looms large in my reading.

  9. I’ve checked the list, I’ve read around 35 of these writers. (It helps that 15 winners are French) Most of the UK winners I haven’t read, they sound old fashioned, no? Like Anatole France, he got national funerals when he died and his books didn’t age well, IMO.

    I’m never reading Herta Müller again after the pheasant one. I thought it was terrible, so creepy.

    Naguib Mahfouz is fantastic, you’ll like him.
    I’m glad they gave it to Toni Morrison but I’ll never understand why P. Roth didn’t get it.

    1. Quite a lot of the earlier winners are probably unreadable nowadays! And yes, there were quite a few French winners – almost as many as Scandinavians. Probably reflective of the language capabilities of the committee.

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