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?

Reading Both Sides: Egyptian and Israeli Literature

I’ve recently read my first Egyptian novel and my first Israeli crime novel, although this was coincidence rather than a deliberate attempt to read across both sides of a long-standing conflict in the Middle East. Unlike the works of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, however, neither of the two books were political, although they both paint portraits of rapidly changing societies with many cracks beneath the surface.

mahfouz_postcardNaguib Mahfouz: The Beginning and the End

Mahfouz is the only Arabic-speaking winner of the Nobel Literature Prize (in 1988). He almost single-handedly modernised Egyptian literature, introducing themes such as politics, existentialism, the voice of the dispossessed, as well as cinematic techniques to his storytelling. This novel is the story of the downfall of a Cairo family in the 1930s, an account of their struggle to survive and make ends meet following the death of the father, a petty government bureaucrat. Although the children are almost fully grown, their efforts to earn money and help the rest of them rise from poverty are beset with difficulties every step of the way.

I was not overly impressed with the book, which reads like a soap opera, until I considered how revolutionary it must have been for its period. The author gives us an unvarnished picture of Egyptian society at a particular point in time: the 1930s and 1940s. We see the corruption and machinations of the Egyptian bureaucracy, its education system, the plotting to marry off daughters, the dangers of women losing their virginity. Yet, although all this societal constraints seem to be suffocating the protagonists, Mahfouz makes no bones about laying an equal share of the blame upon them. Their weaknesses, lack of restraint, selfish behaviours, self-justifications all contribute to the tragic outcomes.

I have not read his other books, but I understand that Mahfouz is highly regarded precisely not only for modernising the language of fiction but also for his detailed examination of daily events in the life of middle-class families, in a society which has undergone major changes over the course of a few decades. It’s this translation of major political events into small everyday happenings and interpretations, this fresco of a vanishing way of life, which makes his work so valuable within his own cultural context. But his family sagas of greed, lies, misguided idealism and disappointments also touch universal themes.

MishaniD. A. Mishani: A Possibility of Violence

A bomb planted in a suitcase in present-day Tel Aviv – this has all of the hallmarks of a political thriller, but it turns out to be a much more personal story of revenge, confusion, parental love and fear. The style could not be more different from Mahfouz: almost clinically detached, sober, simple and precise language. Emotion is still there, but well concealed and tightly controlled throughout.

Mishani is a former editor and specialist of crime fiction, and he uses all the usual crime tropes well in his work. This is clearly a book designed to entertain rather than create a polemical debate. Yet this is not a typical police procedural: we catch glimpses of the complex environment that the police have to operate under in Israel today. Apparently, the police are universally reviled by all ethnic groups living within the borders of Israel, even by those citizens who revere the army. Although the author eschews political views in this book, there are echoes of the tensions between different subgroups within society, rumblings about the way in which Filipino care workers are treated and regarded in this country made up almost entirely of immigrants.