Nobel Prize for Literature winners at your library
September 30, 2010
Yes, Summit County Libraries have lots of bodice busters and gangbusters. But you can also find some of the great Nobel Prize winners on our shelves. Who are those authors? Some you may not have heard of. They are often from foreign countries and seldom on the bestseller lists. But they are well worth reading. A glance at nobel.org will give you a full list of the honorees. The Nobel Prize is given for a lifetime’s work, rather than one specific novel, play, book of poetry or work of nonfiction. (However, a particularly popular work – Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” for example – may stir the committee members to award the prize when they might have passed over all the other achievements of that author.) Of course, just as some Nobel winners are better than others, some works by Nobel winners are better than others. William Faulkner, for example, was given the prize the year that one of his last and least admirable novels, “A Fable,” was published. The committee often waits a bit too long to grant the award. Faulkner’s great – and much earlier – novels are, for the record, “The Sound and the Fury,” “Absalom, Absalom” and “Go Down, Moses.” Hemingway’s best novels: “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” also came much earlier than “The Old Man and the Sea.” The committee’s omissions can also be puzzling: John Galsworthy, but not James Joyce? My personal favorites among the recipients of the prize in the most recent years include J.M.G. Le Clezio, Orhan Pamuk and Jose Saramago. Summit County libraries do not have all of the works by these writers, but what we do not have on our shelves can be ordered easily from other libraries in the Marmot system.The 2008 recipient of the Nobel Prize, J.M.G. Le Clezio, spends a great deal of his time in New Mexico, though he is French by nationality. He writes extensively, both in fiction and nonfiction, about the conflict between the industrialized West and indigenous cultures. His best novel, of those I have had the opportunity to read, is “Desert.” In that novel, Le Clezio weaves together the historically factual story of the French annihilation of a nomadic tribe in 1910 and the modern story of Lalla – a descendant of that tribe – who makes her way from the deserts to Paris, only to feel strongly the call of her desert people. Le Clezio’s descriptions of desert and of the enclaves of indigenous people living in slums by North Africa’s and Europe’s cities are as gripping as the plot, and the story of “Desert” is fascinating. Orhan Pamuk’s “Istanbul: Memories and the City” blends autobiography with a deeply thoughtful description of daily life in Istanbul. His novel, “Snow,” has a great deal to say about the conflict between Western values and Islam. The protagonist of that novel, Ka, returns to a small city in eastern Turkey from Germany, where he has enjoyed a career as an expatriate poet. His return involves both a hopeless nostalgia and a hopeless love. Soon, however, the question is whether he can survive his stay in the city of Kars. An anti-Islamic coup takes place, and Ka finds himself caught in the crossfire between the semi-Fascist thugs, who despise his liberalism, and the Islamists, who see him as an infidel. Pamuk treats this material with a mordant humor. One of the most telling moments occurs when a young Muslim says to Ka, “…the word atheist comes from the Greek athos. But athos doesn’t refer to people who don’t believe in God; it refers to the lonely ones, people whom the gods have abandoned. This proves that people can’t ever really be atheists, because even if we wanted it, God would never abandon us here. To become an atheist, then, you must first become a Westerner.””I wanted to be a Westerner and a believer,” said Ka.That desire, however, is precisely what is so difficult to achieve for Ka, and, by implication, for any Muslim who attempts to be both a Westerner and a believer. The distrust he encounters extends even to the woman he loves. It is hard to explain just how mesmerizing Saramago can be. “The Last Year of the Life of Ricardo Reis” moves slowly, but I was thoroughly engrossed by this story. A doctor returns to Portugal in 1936 from a long self-imposed exile in Brazil, only to find himself under suspicion from the recently empowered fascist government. The novel blends some supernatural touches (the ghost of a dead poet appears often) with an existential sadness. “The Cave” tells the bittersweet story of an aging potter whose clay figures are no longer wanted at the government run arts center. His relationship with his daughter and son-in-law and the surprising ending have much to tell us about the ways in which modernity is destroying (or has destroyed) some of the most important aspects of life.Saramago takes a bit of patience at first. He doesn’t use quotation marks and he seldom indulges in a paragraph break. But after a few pages, readers grow accustomed to the author’s method and begin to see the way in which he is able to draw us more deeply into the flow of his story and prose. Start with “Death with Interruptions,” enter the terror of “Blindness,” move on to its sequel, “Seeing” if you dare – then (having become, as I have been, totally entranced by this author), read “The Gospel According to Jesus” or “The Cave” or “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Elephant’s Journey.” All are wondrous works of art. The Nobel committee is not always perfect in its judgment. But it does point us to some of the very best authors from all over the world. To read Nobelists is to grow in understanding- of literature and of our own lives.