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?