11 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Mo Yan accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature the other day, giving this acceptance speech:

In the fall of 1984 I was accepted into the Literature Department of the PLA Art Academy, where, under the guidance of my revered mentor, the renowned writer Xu Huaizhong, I wrote a series of stories and novellas, including: “Autumn Floods,” “Dry River,” “The Transparent Carrot,” and “Red Sorghum.” Northeast Gaomi Township made its first appearance in “Autumn Floods,” and from that moment on, like a wandering peasant who finds his own piece of land, this literary vagabond found a place he could call his own. I must say that in the course of creating my literary domain, Northeast Gaomi Township, I was greatly inspired by the American novelist William Faulkner and the Columbian Gabriel García Márquez. I had not read either of them extensively, but was encouraged by the bold, unrestrained way they created new territory in writing, and learned from them that a writer must have a place that belongs to him alone. Humility and compromise are ideal in one’s daily life, but in literary creation, supreme self-confidence and the need to follow one’s own instincts are essential. For two years I followed in the footsteps of these two masters before realizing that I had to escape their influence; this is how I characterized that decision in an essay: They were a pair of blazing furnaces, I was a block of ice. If I got too close to them, I would dissolve into a cloud of steam. In my understanding, one writer influences another when they enjoy a profound spiritual kinship, what is often referred to as “hearts beating in unison.” That explains why, though I had read little of their work, a few pages were sufficient for me to comprehend what they were doing and how they were doing it, which led to my understanding of what I should do and how I should do it.

What I should do was simplicity itself: Write my own stories in my own way. My way was that of the marketplace storyteller, with which I was so familiar, the way my grandfather and my grandmother and other village old-timers told stories. In all candor, I never gave a thought to audience when I was telling my stories; perhaps my audience was made up of people like my mother, and perhaps it was only me. The early stories were narrations of my personal experience: the boy who received a whipping in “Dry River,” for instance, or the boy who never spoke in “The Transparent Carrot.” I had actually done something bad enough to receive a whipping from my father, and I had actually worked the bellows for a blacksmith on a bridge site. Naturally, personal experience cannot be turned into fiction exactly as it happened, no matter how unique that might be. Fiction has to be fictional, has to be imaginative. To many of my friends, “The Transparent Carrot” is my very best story; I have no opinion one way or the other. What I can say is, “The Transparent Carrot” is more symbolic and more profoundly meaningful than any other story I’ve written. That dark-skinned boy with the superhuman ability to suffer and a superhuman degree of sensitivity represents the soul of my entire fictional output. Not one of all the fictional characters I’ve created since then is as close to my soul as he is. Or put a different way, among all the characters a writer creates, there is always one that stands above all the others. For me, that laconic boy is the one. Though he says nothing, he leads the way for all the others, in all their variety, performing freely on the Northeast Gaomi Township stage. [. . .]

My greatest challenges come with writing novels that deal with social realities, such as The Garlic Ballads, not because I’m afraid of being openly critical of the darker aspects of society, but because heated emotions and anger allow politics to suppress literature and transform a novel into reportage of a social event. As a member of society, a novelist is entitled to his own stance and viewpoint; but when he is writing he must take a humanistic stance, and write accordingly. Only then can literature not just originate in events, but transcend them, not just show concern for politics but be greater than politics.

Possibly because I’ve lived so much of my life in difficult circumstances, I think I have a more profound understanding of life. I know what real courage is, and I understand true compassion. I know that nebulous terrain exists in the hearts and minds of every person, terrain that cannot be adequately characterized in simple terms of right and wrong or good and bad, and this vast territory is where a writer gives free rein to his talent. So long as the work correctly and vividly describes this nebulous, massively contradictory terrain, it will inevitably transcend politics and be endowed with literary excellence.

Prattling on and on about my own work must be annoying, but my life and works are inextricably linked, so if I don’t talk about my work, I don’t know what else to say. I hope you are in a forgiving mood.

The stuff about his writing, etc., is decent enough, but these few paragraphs towards the end are a bit more intriguing:

The announcement of my Nobel Prize has led to controversy. At first I thought I was the target of the disputes, but over time I’ve come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me. Like someone watching a play in a theater, I observed the performances around me. I saw the winner of the prize both garlanded with flowers and besieged by stone-throwers and mudslingers. I was afraid he would succumb to the assault, but he emerged from the garlands of flowers and the stones, a smile on his face; he wiped away mud and grime, stood calmly off to the side, and said to the crowd:

For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated. I would like you to find the patience to read my books. I cannot force you to do that, and even if you do, I do not expect your opinion of me to change. No writer has yet appeared, anywhere in the world, who is liked by all his readers; that is especially true during times like these. [. . .]

I am a storyteller.

Telling stories earned me the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Many interesting things have happened to me in the wake of winning the prize, and they have convinced me that truth and justice are alive and well.

So I will continue telling my stories in the days to come.

As is detailed in today’s issue of Publishing Perspectives, the main controversy regarding Mo Yan and the Nobel is his take on the censorship imposed by the Chinese Government. One of the most outspoken critics of Mo Yan is fellow Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, who said it was a “catastrophe” that Mo Yan received the award. From Publishing Perspectives:

Müller went on to criticize Mo for hand-copying a Mao Zedong speech, in which the deceased ruler stated that all art and culture should serve the Communist government, and for doing little to help the plight of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

OK, so onto that Liu Xiaobo bit. This article from The Guardian really brings home this issue:

This year’s Nobel prize in literature winner, Mo Yan, who has been criticised for his membership in China’s Communist party and reluctance to speak out against the country’s government, has defended censorship as something as necessary as airport security checks.

He also suggested he won’t join an appeal calling for the release of the jailed 2010 Peace prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, a fellow writer and compatriot. [. . .]

This year’s Nobel prize in literature winner, Mo Yan, who has been criticised for his membership in China’s Communist party and reluctance to speak out against the country’s government, has defended censorship as something as necessary as airport security checks.

He also suggested he won’t join an appeal calling for the release of the jailed 2010 Peace prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, a fellow writer and compatriot.

Obviously this is something that doesn’t sit well with most Western liberal, free-speech loving folks. Again, Publishing Perspectives puts this best:

Censorship appears to be simply indefensible, but like many things between East and West, there may be a disconnect. The Chinese themselves prevaricate on the issue, sometimes tolerating dissent so long as it stays on the fringes and does not disturb the masses. When it comes to book publishing in China, the government controls access to ISBNs, printing, distribution…the entire publishing production chain. Independent publishing may be nascent, but it is hardly robust or much of an alternative. Most Chinese authors who wish to publicly criticize the country simply leave (if they can), which in turn opens them up to criticism that they have lost touch about the country and have no authority on which to comment about it. Those who stay, like Mo Yan, make compromises.

Publicly, the Chinese Communist Party says censorship is necessary to govern a sprawling nation. But what goes unsaid is that censorship is also a hammer, one which enables them to beat down opposition and sustain power. After all, knowledge is power and if you control the means of access to knowledge, you control the power. Plain and simple.

So, yeah. What’s curious though is this review of Pow! in which Andrea Lingenfelter complicates the view that Mo Yan is a government stooge:

If this book isn’t a social and political critique, I don’t know what is. The narrator is a child in a man’s body, sexually frustrated, powerless, and poor. Who’s on top in this society? Corrupt village heads and Party officials with their Audi A6s and Remy Martin cognac. The peasants get rich feeding the unseemly appetites of China’s new urban bourgeoisie with bogus and sometimes toxic products, while the countryside itself turns into an abattoir. This is the Reform Era and these are the Party bosses who have guided it. In case we miss the point, the narrator states: “Ugly, snot-nosed, grime-covered children, who are kicked about like mangy dogs” are more likely than attractive and happy children to grow up to be “thugs, armed robbers, high officials or senior military officers.” If China’s leaders and low-lifes are drawn from the same pool, what hope is there?

In the end, hopefully the art transcends the artist? I mean, I do know a lot of artists I’d rather not know, especially since it reflects on their work. And I’m personally still interested in reading more of his works—especially Pow!. That said, this is a blow to the credibility of the Swedish Academy (in my opinion), which is definitely not what it needs . . .

12 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the things that may have gotten buried in all the articles about Mo Yan receiving this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature is the fact that Seagull Books is bringing out his next work in English translation—POW!, which sounds pretty wild, and has been compared to the works of Witold Gombrowicz and Javok Lind.

Today, over at First Post, there’s an essay by Bishan Samaddar about the book.

I have little knowledge of Chinese literature. Much like Salman Rushdie, who confessed on Facebook that Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum has been lying unread on his bookshelf for ages, I have not had much inclination to pick up Chinese books. Few are available in good English translations. Only when Seagull Books, the publishing house I work for, decided to bring out an English translation of Mo Yan’s new novel POW! did I dive into this phantasmagoria.

In POW! Mo Yan writes in the voice of a child. The narrator is adult, he has decided to become a Buddhist monk, but his childhood has not left him. He recounts his experience of childhood to a certain silent Wise Monk in a ruined temple; his story flows uncontrollably. ‘Verbal diarrhea’, that disgusting cliché that I have always hated, now begins to make sense. Make no mistake about it—the flow in POW! is not just verbal. Having mostly read very middle-class-friendly books, where even the most passionate sex is prettified and lifted above the dailiness of life, POW! is most disconcerting in its obsession with the physical and the vulgar. The brutal genius of Mo Yan lies not just in making you identify with characters and situations as all great literature does but also in his refusal to omit the minutest, ugliest, most embarrassing detail of any experience. The ugliness makes the experience eerily intimate:

The old woman hobbled up to me, took a piece of turnip from her mouth and stuffed it into mine. That was sort of revolting, I don’t deny it. But thoughts of how pigeons exchange food turned revulsion into intimacy. I was reminded of something that had occurred in the past. It was back when my father had gone off to the northeast and Mother and I were surviving by dealing in scrap. We were taking a break at a roadside stall. . . . A blind couple with a chubby, fair-skinned baby were eating at the stall. The baby, obviously hungry, was crying. The woman, hearing my mother’s voice, asked if she would feed the baby. So Mother took the baby from her and a hard biscuit from the man, which she chewed into pulp before feeding him mouth to mouth. . . . I swallowed the turnip the old woman had put in my mouth and suddenly felt sharp-eyed and clear-headed.

The whole essay is interesting, but here are a few more clips that grabbed my attention:

Mo Yan is fixated on orifices. Sex, urinating, defecating aside, there is endless eating. The narrator tells us that he has had an impoverished childhood, bereft of meat, in a village famous for its meat-processing plant. There is hardly anything that is not eaten in this novel—chicken, duck, sheep, goat, dog, pig, cow, horse, donkey, ostrich. [. . .]

The pitch of life depicted in POW! is all too familiar to us Indians—there is eating, and there is vomiting; love and fornication, but also peeing and farting; passionate embraces but also the foulest of abuses; and the impossibly crude sentimental longing that one feels for one’s family. We often try not to notice the most physical aspects of this life but without them that life is pathetically incomplete.

Reading POW! I realized that the crucial thing about life is its irrationality. In a world saturated with Western narratives in which everything happens for a reason, Mo Yan is freedom. His characters have motives that are totally unfounded in reason; they are led to immense violence as well as complete renunciation in a world that we would hate to see as real but, unfortunately, is entirely real. Mo Yan has none of the fanciful flights that you encounter in Gabriel Garcia Marquez; he is a dark but hilarious continuing slapstick, a bawdy and bloody Buster Keaton. His fiction pushes its way up like grain through parched soil. And it does so only because the tale needs to be told.

Definitely check out the article, and then buy the book. I hear it’s being fast-tracked and could be available as early as the end of next month.

11 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In case you’re just getting up and haven’t heard the news, Mo Yan was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2012 was awarded to Mo Yan “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.

Admittedly, I’ve never read any of Mo Yan’s books in full, but I’ve been interested in him since seeing him speak with his translator, Howard Goldblatt, at the MLA conference a few years back. Paul Yamazaki of City Lights was there as well, and highly recommended a few of his books, including Red Sorghum, his first novel.

He does have a number of titles available in English translation, including:

Red Sorghum

Spanning three generations, this novel of family and myth is told through a series of flashbacks that depict events of staggering horror set against a landscape of gemlike beauty, as the Chinese battle both Japanese invaders and each other in the turbulent 1930s

The Garlic Ballads

The farmers of Paradise County have been leading a hardscrabble life unchanged for generations. The Communist government has encouraged them to plant garlic, but selling the crop is not as simple as they believed. Warehouses fill up, taxes skyrocket, and government officials maltreat even those who have traveled for days to sell their harvest. A surplus on the garlic market ensues, and the farmers must watch in horror as their crops wither and rot in the fields. Families are destroyed by the random imprisonment of young and old for supposed crimes against the state.

The Republic of Wine: A Novel

In this hypnotic epic novel, Mo Yan, the most critically acclaimed Chinese writer of this generation, takes us on a journey to a conjured province of contemporary China known as the Republic of Wine—a corrupt and hallucinatory world filled with superstitions, gargantuan appetites, and surrealistic events. When rumors reach the authorities that strange and excessive gourmandise is being practiced in the city of Liquorland (so named for the staggering amount of alcohol produced and consumed there), veteran special investigator Ding Gou’er is dispatched from the capital to discover the truth. His mission begins at the Mount Lou Coal Mine, where he encounters the prime suspect—Deputy Head Diamond Jin, legendary for his capacity to hold his liquor. During the ensuing drinking duel at a banquet served in Ding’s honor, the investigator loses all sense of reality, and can no longer tell whether the roast suckling served is of the animal or human variety. When he finally wakes up from his stupor, he has still found no answers to his rapidly mounting questions. Worse yet, he soon finds that his trusty gun is missing.

Shifu: You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh

In these stories he writes of those who suffer, physically and spiritually, under its yoke: the newly unemployed factory worker who hits upon an ingenious financial opportunity; two former lovers revisiting their passion fleetingly before returning to their spouses; young couples willing to pay for a place to share their love in private; the abandoned baby brought home by a soldier to his unsympathetic wife; the impoverished child who must subsist on a diet of iron and steel; the young bride willing to go to any length to escape an odious, arranged marriage. Never didactic, Mo’s fiction ranges from tragedy to wicked satire, rage to whimsy, magical fable to harsh realism, from impassioned pleas on behalf of struggling workers to paeans to romantic love.

Big Breasts & Wide Hips

In a country where patriarchal favoritism and the primacy of sons survived multiple revolutions and an ideological earthquake, this epic novel is first and foremost about women, with the female body serving as the book’s central metaphor. The protagonist, Mother, is born in 1900 and married at seventeen into the Shangguan family. She has nine children, only one of whom is a boy—the narrator of the book. A spoiled and ineffectual child, he stands in stark contrast to his eight strong and forceful female siblings.

Mother, a survivor, is the quintessential strong woman who risks her life to save several of her children and grandchildren. The writing is picturesque, bawdy, shocking, and imaginative. The structure draws on the essentials of classical Chinese formalism and injects them with extraordinarily raw and surprising prose. Each of the seven chapters represents a different time period, from the end of the Qing dynasty up through the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, the civil war, the Cultural Revolution, and the post-Mao years. Now in a beautifully bound collectors edition, this stunning novel is Mo Yan’s searing vision of twentieth-century China.

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out

Today’s most revered, feared, and controversial Chinese novelist offers a tour de force in which the real, the absurd, the comical, and the tragic are blended into a fascinating read. The hero—or antihero—of Mo Yan’s new novel is Ximen Nao, a landowner known for his benevolence to his peasants. His story is a deliriously unique journey and absolutely riveting tale that reveals the author’s love of a homeland beset by ills inevitable, political, and traditional.

Change

In Change, Mo Yan—China’s foremost novelist—personalizes the political and social changes in his country over the past few decades in a novella disguised as autobiography (or vice-versa). Unlike most historical narratives from China, which are pegged to political events, Change is a representative of “people’s history,” a bottom-up rather than top-down view of a country in flux. By moving back and forth in time and focusing on small events and everyday people, Yan breathes life into history by describing the effects of larger-than-life events on the average citizen.

And Seagull Books—one of the coolest indie presses in the world—is bringing out his next book, Pow! in January:

A benign old monk listens to a prospective novice’s tale of depravity, violence, and carnivorous excess while a nice little family drama—in which nearly everyone dies—unfurls. But in this tale of sharp hatchets, bad water, and a rusty WWII mortar, we can’t help but laugh. Reminiscent of the novels of dark masters of European absurdism like Günter Grass, Witold Gombrowicz(!), or Jakov Lind(!!), Mo Yan’s Pow! is a comic masterpiece.

In this bizarre romp through the Chinese countryside, the author treats us to a cornucopia of cooked animal flesh—ostrich, camel, donkey, dog, as well as the more common varieties. As his dual narratives merge and feather into one another, each informing and illuminating the other, Yan probes the character and lifestyle of modern China. Displaying his many talents, as fabulist, storyteller, scatologist, master of allusion and cliché, and more, Pow! carries the reader along quickly, hungrily, and giddily, up until its surprising dénouement.

Although these descriptions (aside from Pow!, which has Jeff Waxman written all over that jacket copy) seem pretty sobering, my impression—based in part on this Granta interview and hearing him read and reading a few other things online—is that his books are somewhat playful, and filled with food and sex and some non-PC things. He’s run into trouble getting his books published in China (who hasn’t?), and my sense of things is that this is an interesting and good choice for the award—and someone who western (re: American) readers will appreciate.

Going back to that Granta interview with John Freeman, here are a few things that caught my eye:

JF: Some of your writing recalls the work of Günter Grass, William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Were these writers available to you in China when you were growing up? Can you tell us a little about your influences?

MY: When I first started writing it was the year of 1981, so I didn’t read any books by Marquez or Faulkner. It was 1984 when I first read their works and undoubtedly those two writers have great influence on my creations. I found that my life experience is quite similar to theirs, but I only discovered this later on. If I had read their works sooner I would have already accomplished a masterpiece like they did. [. . .]

JF: You often write in the language of the local Laobaixing, and specifically the Shandong dialect, which gives your prose a flinty edge to it. Does it frustrate you that some of the idioms and puns might not make it into an English translation or are you able to work around that with your translator, Howard Goldblatt?

MY: Well, indeed, I use quite a substantial amount of local dialect, idioms and puns in my earlier works because at that time I didn’t even China has progressed but progress itself brings up many issues, for instance environmental issues and the decline in high moral standards. consider that my work would be translated into other languages. Later on I realised that this kind of language creates a lot of trouble for the translator. But to not use dialect, idioms and puns doesn’t work for me because idiomatic language is vivid, expressive and it is also the quintessential part of the signature language of a particular writer. So, on the one hand I can modify and adjust some of my usage of puns and idioms but on the other I hope that our translators, during their work, can echo the puns I use in another language – that is the ideal situation. [. . .]

JF: Is avoiding censorship a question of subtly and to what extend do the avenues opened up by magical realism, as well as more traditional techniques of characterisation allow a writer to express their deepest concerns without resorting to polemic?

MY: Yes, indeed. Many approaches to literature have political bearings, for example in our real life there might be some sharp or sensitive issues that they do not wish to touch upon. At such a juncture a writer can inject their own imagination to isolate them from the real world or maybe they can exaggerate the situation – making sure it is bold, vivid and has the signature of our real world. So, actually I believe these limitations or censorship is great for literature creation.

In the coverage of the award on the The Guardian, I read that the Nobel Prize secretary recommended starting with The Garlic Ballads. Just to give you a taste, here’s the opening of that novel:

“Gao Yang!”

The noonday sun beat down fiercely; dusty air carried the stink of rotting garlic after a prolonged dry spell. A flock of indigo crows flew wearily across the sky, casting a shadowy wedge. There had been no time to braid the garlic, which lay in heaps, reeking as it baked in the sun. Gao Yang, whose eyebrows sloped downward at the ends, was squatting alongside a table, holding a bowl of garlic broth and fighting back the waves of nausea rising from his stomach. The urgent shout had come in through his unlatched gate as he was about to take a sip of the broth. He recognized the voice as belonging to the village boss, Gao Jinjiao. Hastily laying down his bowl, he shouted a reply and walked to the door. “Is that you, Uncle Jinjiao? Come on in.”

That’s not much to go on, but I’d have to quote a lot more to give you a full sense of the book . . . If I find more excerpts online, I’ll post them separately.

For now, congrats to Mo Yan, and congrats to his English-language translator, Howard Goldblatt. (Who will hopefully get some royalties for this. If not, that’s a tragedy.)

10 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

And if Murakami Haruki wins, I’m calling in sick.

Those odds are plain out stupid. I sort of find the betting on literary prizes angle to be intriguing, but it’s so clear that the betting public is basically no more knowledgable than a herd of sheep, and just as likely to follow and loud dog.

And why is Bob Dylan have 10/1 odds? I’m calling in dead if he wins.

7 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast is a special two-part episode. We recorded the first half on Wednesday and speculated about who was going to win this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature and talked about the odd and awesome British practice of betting on the winner. The second half we recorded yesterday, after we found out that Tomas Transtromer—who is published by New Directions—was this year’s recipient of the prize.

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6 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

And this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Tomas Transtromer.

From the “Guardian:”:

Praised by the judges for “his condensed translucent images” which give us “fresh access to reality”, Tranströmer’s surreal explorations of the inner world and its relation to the jagged landscape of his native country have been translated into 50 languages.

Born in Stockholm in 1931, Tranströmer studied at the University of Stockholm and worked as a psychologist at an institution for young offenders. His first collection of poetry, 17 Dikter (17 Poems, was published in 1954, while he was still at college. Collections including Hemligheter på vägen (1958) and Klangar och spår (1966) reflected on his travels in the Balkans, Spain and Africa, while the poems in Östersjöar (1974) examine the troubled history of the Baltic region through the conflict between sea and land.

He suffered a stroke in 1990 which affected his ability to talk, but has continued to write, with his collection Sorgegondolen going on to sell 30,000 copies on its pubilcation in 1996. At a recent appearance in London, his words were read by others, while the poet, who is a keen amateur musician, contributed by playing pieces specially composed for him to play on the piano with only his left hand.

Tranströmer has described his poems as “meeting places,” where dark and light, interior and exterior collide to give a sudden connection with the world, history or ourselves. According to the poet, “The language marches in step with the executioners. Therefore we must get a new language.”

Of course, seeing that Transtromer is Swedish, a lot of critics are going to get their hackles up, such as this line that opens the same Guardian article: “The Swedish Academy has responded to accusations of insularity over recent years by awarding the 2011 Nobel prize for literature to one of their own.” Snarky!

I don’t actually think this is very controversial at all, but others do . . .

Anyway, congrats to Transtormer and to New Directions, Green Integer, Graywolf, Ecco, and his other publishers. And speaking of ND, the podcast going up tomorrow is a special discussion about the Nobel Prize, with the first half recorded yesterday before the announcement, and the second half today. So Tom can share the excitement of the ND office . . .

5 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Bob Dylan is now listed at 5/1 making him the favorite for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. I find this very confusing. Bob Dylan? Nobel Prize in Literature? I doubt he’ll win, but in a way, it would be awesomely fitting after all of the complaints over the past few years that a) Americans don’t win often enough and b) Philip Roth deserves it. It would be a pretty awesome way of shutting down part of those complaints . . .

For a much more informative overview of this year’s Nobel Prize, definitely check out Michael Orthofer’s post at the Literary Saloon:

Summing up, for now: I’ve seen nothing to change my mind or expand the list of candidates I think are in the closer running (though I’m tempted to add Can Xue to the possible contenders) and my favorites remain: Ibrahim al-Koni, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Amos Oz, and Juan Goytisolo; with a second tier of contenders consisting of Nuruddin Farah, Murakami Haruki, and Philip Roth (with honorable mention for the really dark horses Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Shahrnush Parsipur, Gerald Murnane, and C.K.Stead).

4 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

So, following on yesterday’s post on the forthcoming announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature (supposed to happen on Thursday) and the current odds at Ladbrokes, I just want to point out that the big mover today is Bob Dylan, who shot up from 50/1 to 10/1. Interesting . . .

*

More interesting though is this class, which Three Percent fan and University of Alabama employee Richard LeComte brought to my attention yesterday:

Students in English 411, Dr. Emily O. Wittman’s Advanced Studies in Comparative and Multicultural Literature class, don’t just sit and read. They judge.

Wittman has arranged her class of about 20 University of Alabama undergrads as a prize committee, mimicking the panels that select the Nobel, Booker or Pulitzer prizes in literature each year. Her class will pick the winner of the coveted Druid City Brick Award from among some of the great contemporary authors of world literature. In the process, the students will experience life as an awards judge and critic.

“I wanted to do something that would allow the students to understand the problems and the stakes of world literature as a contested field,” said Wittman, assistant professor of English at UA. “How do we describe what’s great?” [. . ]

“We talk about translation,” Wittman said. “We talk about gender. We talk about how politics figure into the awards.That doesn’t mean that in our community that’s how we want to honor our prize-winners. But we learn about what prize committees are and what they do.”

This semester, Wittman’s class started with Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Other books on the class’s short list include Life and Times of Michael K. by South African writer J.M. Coetzee; Changeling by Japanese author Kenzaburō Ōe; The Bad Girl by recent Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa; and The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Austrian author Peter Handke. One of the goals of the class is to expand students’ knowledge of 20th century world literature, an area many members of the American reading public tend to overlook. [. . .]

When the votes are in – Wittman stresses that she’s a nonvoting member of this awards panel – the class will enshrine the name of the winning author on a brick outside UA’s Ferguson Student Center. And Wittman’s students will be much more aware of how to think critically about the quality of the literature they read.

This is a fantastic idea, one that would be a lot of fun for everyone involved, would draw out a lot of interesting themes, and would probably spark really good in class conversation. Half-tempted to adopt some aspects of this for my spring World Literature & Translation class. Maybe use some of the titles from this year’s BTBA longlist . . .

3 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

According to various reports, this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced on Thursday around lunchtime.

As always, the announcement of the forthcoming announcement brings out the speculation as to who will win, the complaints about why Americans don’t win every year, and the betting. Since I don’t really care who wins (although I hope for our sake it’s Dubravka Ugresic, and I really hope Philip Roth doesn’t win), I just want to focus on the betting.

Ladbrokes is the main betting place, and here are the current odds for the top five and some select other listings:

Adonis 4/1
Tomas Transtromer 6/1
Haruki Murakami 8/1
Peter Nadas 10/1
Assia Djebar 12/1
Thomas Pynchon 16/1
Philip Roth 25/1
Antonio Lobo Antunes 25/1
Adam Zagajewski 33/1
Salman Rushdie 50/1
Javier Marias 50/1
Elias Khoury 50/1
Bob Dylan 50/1
Per Petterson 80/1
Jonathan Littell 80/1
William Gass 80/1

The authors with the top entries are always at the top right about this time, and the winner always seems to come out of nowhere. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review is the master of deciphering these odds, but I’ll keep an eye on any sudden changes—that usually signals who the winner is going to be.

In the meantime, if you want to speculate—or just give a shout out as to who you think should win—feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although the video version isn’t available yet, the full transcript of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize speech is now available online. Below is the opening, and if you’re interested in reading a Vargas Llosa book because of this, I’d highly highly highly recommend Conversations in the Cathedral. Absolutely breathtaking in scope, emotion, and innovative literary techniques.

On with the speech:

“In Praise of Reading and Fiction”

I learned to read at the age of five, in Brother Justiniano’s class at the De la Salle Academy in Cochabamba, Bolivia. It is the most important thing that has ever happened to me. Almost seventy years later I remember clearly how the magic of translating the words in books into images enriched my life, breaking the barriers of time and space and allowing me to travel with Captain Nemo twenty thousand leagues under the sea, fight with d’Artagnan, Athos, Portos, and Aramis against the intrigues threatening the Queen in the days of the secretive Richelieu, or stumble through the sewers of Paris, transformed into Jean Valjean carrying Marius’s inert body on my back.

Reading changed dreams into life and life into dreams and placed the universe of literature within reach of the boy I once was. My mother told me the first things I wrote were continuations of the stories I read because it made me sad when they concluded or because I wanted to change their endings. And perhaps this is what I have spent my life doing without realizing it: prolonging in time, as I grew, matured, and aged, the stories that filled my childhood with exaltation and adventures.

I wish my mother were here, a woman who was moved to tears reading the poems of Amado Nervo and Pablo Neruda, and Grandfather Pedro too, with his large nose and gleaming bald head, who celebrated my verses, and Uncle Lucho, who urged me so energetically to throw myself body and soul into writing even though literature, in that time and place, compensated its devotees so badly. Throughout my life I have had people like that at my side, people who loved and encouraged me and infected me with their faith when I had doubts. Thanks to them, and certainly to my obstinacy and some luck, I have been able to devote most of my time to the passion, the vice, the marvel of writing, creating a parallel life where we can take refuge against adversity, one that makes the extraordinary natural and the natural extraordinary, that dissipates chaos, beautifies ugliness, eternalizes the moment, and turns death into a passing spectacle.

Writing stories was not easy. When they were turned into words, projects withered on the paper and ideas and images failed. How to reanimate them? Fortunately, the masters were there, teachers to learn from and examples to follow. Flaubert taught me that talent is unyielding discipline and long patience. Faulkner, that form – writing and structure – elevates or impoverishes subjects. Martorell, Cervantes, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad, Thomas Mann, that scope and ambition are as important in a novel as stylistic dexterity and narrative strategy. Sartre, that words are acts, that a novel, a play, or an essay, engaged with the present moment and better options, can change the course of history. Camus and Orwell, that a literature stripped of morality is inhuman, and Malraux that heroism and the epic are as possible in the present as is the time of the Argonauts, the Odyssey, and the Iliad.

If in this address I were to summon all the writers to whom I owe a few things or a great deal, their shadows would plunge us into darkness. They are innumerable. In addition to revealing the secrets of the storytelling craft, they obliged me to explore the bottomless depths of humanity, admire its heroic deeds, and feel horror at its savagery. They were my most obliging friends, the ones who vitalized my calling and in whose books I discovered that there is hope even in the worst of circumstances, that living is worth the effort if only because without life we could not read or imagine stories.

At times I wondered whether writing was not a solipsistic luxury in countries like mine, where there were scant readers, so many people who were poor and illiterate, so much injustice, and where culture was a privilege of the few. These doubts, however, never stifled my calling, and I always kept writing even during those periods when earning a living absorbed most of my time. I believe I did the right thing, since if, for literature to flourish, it was first necessary for a society to achieve high culture, freedom, prosperity, and justice, it never would have existed. But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires, and our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables. We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.

Without fictions we would be less aware of the importance of freedom for life to be livable, the hell it turns into when it is trampled underfoot by a tyrant, an ideology, or a religion. Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers. They do this because they know the risk of allowing the imagination to wander free in books, know how seditious fictions become when the reader compares the freedom that makes them possible and is exercised in them with the obscurantism and fear lying in wait in the real world. Whether they want it or not, know it or not, when they invent stories the writers of tales propagate dissatisfaction, demonstrating that the world is badly made and the life of fantasy richer than the life of our daily routine. This fact, if it takes root in their sensibility and consciousness, makes citizens more difficult to manipulate, less willing to accept the lies of the interrogators and jailers who would like to make them believe that behind bars they lead more secure and better lives.

Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs, and prejudices that separate us. When the great white whale buries Captain Ahab in the sea, the hearts of readers take fright in exactly the same way in Tokyo, Lima, or Timbuctu. When Emma Bovary swallows arsenic, Anna Karenina throws herself in front of the train, and Julien Sorel climbs to the scaffold, and when, in “El sur,” the urban doctor Juan Dahlmann walks out of that tavern on the pampa to face a thug’s knife, or we realize that all the residents of Comala, Pedro Páramo’s village, are dead, the shudder is the same in the reader who worships Buddha, Confucius, Christ, Allah, or is an agnostic, wears a jacket and tie, a jalaba, a kimono, or bombachas. Literature creates a fraternity within human diversity and eclipses the frontiers erected among men and women by ignorance, ideologies, religions, languages, and stupidity.

Since every period has its horrors, ours is the age of fanatics, of suicide terrorists, an ancient species convinced that by killing they earn heaven, that the blood of innocents washes away collective affronts, corrects injustices, and imposes truth on false beliefs. Every day, all over the world, countless victims are sacrificed by those who feel they possess absolute truths. With the collapse of totalitarian empires, we believed that living together, peace, pluralism, and human rights would gain the ascendancy and the world would leave behind holocausts, genocides, invasions, and wars of extermination. None of that has occurred. New forms of barbarism flourish, incited by fanaticism, and with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we cannot overlook the fact that any small faction of crazed redeemers may one day provoke a nuclear cataclysm. We have to thwart them, confront them, and defeat them. There aren’t many, although the tumult of their crimes resounds all over the planet and the nightmares they provoke overwhelm us with dread. We should not allow ourselves to be intimidated by those who want to snatch away the freedom we have been acquiring over the long course of civilization. Let us defend the liberal democracy that, with all its limitations, continues to signify political pluralism, coexistence, tolerance, human rights, respect for criticism, legality, free elections, alternation in power, everything that has been taking us out of a savage life and bringing us closer – though we will never attain it – to the beautiful, perfect life literature devises, the one we can deserve only by inventing, writing, and reading it. By confronting homicidal fanatics we defend our right to dream and to make our dreams reality. . . .

Read the full text by clicking here.

2 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Herta Müller’s The Passport, which was translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and rapidly reprinted by Serpent’s Tail last fall when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Monica Carter is one of our top reviewers and a great champion of world literature. She’s on the fiction committee for the Best Translated Book Award, works at Skylight Books in L.A., and runs the always fascinating Salonica web site.

Here’s the opening of her review:

No one quite captures the alienation of the dispossessed like Herta Müller. The Romanian-born German Nobel Laureate delves deeply into the subconscious of people suffering from the emotional and political ramifications of living life under a communist dictatorship and gives us characters whose only hope is to find a way out. Having lived through the Ceausescu dictatorship, Müller’s ability to convey the confining limits of village life under Communism is unique and unparalleled. The Passport is a shuddersome and compelling work comprised of image-laden depictions of the repressed desolation and understated anguish of the town’s inhabitants. The central protagonist, Windisch, is the town miller who wants nothing more than to escape to West Berlin with his wife and grown daughter.

Through the short, nonlinear stories, or more aptly, histories, Müller infuses the narrative with symbolism, dream sequences and superstitions. The apple tree, used as a fear-inducing specter, could represent the Communist regime devouring the freedoms of those who live by its rule:

“In the morning night watchman didn’t lie down to sleep. He went to the village mayor. He told him that the apple tree behind the church ate its own apples. The mayor laughed. The night watchman could hear fear behind the laughter. Little hammers of life were beating in the mayor’s head.”

Click here to read the full review.

And that’s it! Have a great weekend—see you back here on Tuesday!

2 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

No one quite captures the alienation of the dispossessed like Herta Müller. The Romanian-born German Nobel Laureate delves deeply into the subconscious of people suffering from the emotional and political ramifications of living life under a communist dictatorship and gives us characters whose only hope is to find a way out. Having lived through the Ceausescu dictatorship, Müller’s ability to convey the confining limits of village life under Communism is unique and unparalleled. The Passport is a shuddersome and compelling work comprised of image-laden depictions of the repressed desolation and understated anguish of the town’s inhabitants. The central protagonist, Windisch, is the town miller who wants nothing more than to escape to West Berlin with his wife and grown daughter.

Through the short, nonlinear stories, or more aptly, histories, Müller infuses the narrative with symbolism, dream sequences and superstitions. The apple tree, used as a fear-inducing specter, could represent the Communist regime devouring the freedoms of those who live by its rule:

In the morning night watchman didn’t lie down to sleep. He went to the village mayor. He told him that the apple tree behind the church ate its own apples. The mayor laughed. The night watchman could hear fear behind the laughter. Little hammers of life were beating in the mayor’s head.

This is the typical eerie passage from Müller. As her terse and poetic style provides a haunting rhythm and distance, the dour reality of town life coupled with the characters’ desires to become part of the West sets an ominous tone the builds as the novel progresses. Nature itself is portrayed as a character, and its different elements make repeated appearances that are both fanciful and surreal:

“The owls have no peace, and the water has no peace,” says Windisch. “If it dies, another owl will come to the village. A stupid young owl that doesn’t know anything. It will sit on anyone’s roof.”

The night watchman looks up at the moon. “The young people will die again,” he says. Windisch sees that the air just in front of him belongs to the night watchman. His voice manages a tired sentence “Then it will be like war again,” he says.

Throughout the novel, Windisch is a sad and anxious character. A miller without money or much else searches to obtain passports from a local for himself and his family. Unable to achieve this, he endures a bleak existence not only without respect from his wife, but also resigned to her bouts of vitriol. Their freedom rests on their daughter’s sexual favors with the village militiaman and priest. This knowledge, as horrific as it is, seems like the only way out of their plodding existence that is surrounded by death and time.

Müller allows the reader no sense of redemption, constructing the same hopelessness created by a totalitarian government. Our Windisch rides through the town on his bicycle and through his eyes, everyday objects morph into phantoms that disturbs the reader. Müller is a master of a direct and breviloquent prose that heightens the harsh realities of Windisch’s life and the lives of all those imprisoned by Communist rule in Romania. Perhaps not her best work, but a startling novella that limns a world of heartbreak and obsession and the tragedy of desperation it can create.

8 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Wow. Michael Orthofer was right and Romanian-German author Herta Mueller has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. From the Associated Press:

Romanian-born German writer Herta Mueller won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday, honored for work that “with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed,” the Swedish Academy said.

The 56-year-old author, who emigrated to Germany from then-communist Romania in 1987, made her debut in 1982 with a collection of short stories titled “Niederungen,” or “Lowlands” in English, which was promptly censored by her government. [. . .]

In 1987 she emigrated to Germany with her husband two years before dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled from power amid the widening communist collapse across eastern Europe.

Mueller’s parents were members of the German-speaking minority in Romania and father served in the Waffen SS during World War II.

After the war ended, many German Romanians were deported to the Soviet Union in 1945, including her mother, who spent five years in a work camp in what is now Ukraine.

I’m sure Entertainment Weekly won’t be the only publication to run a “Herta who? These books sound depressingly complex” sort of article, but rather than revisit that sinkpit of an argument1 (thankfully this year there was no controversial statement from Horace Engdahl to really piss off the U.S. literati), I thought I’d just post the PW/_LJ_ reviews of all of her books that have been translated into English. I remember reading about The Land of Green Plums when it came out, but admittedly, I never got around to reading it . . .

Nadirs (translated by Sieglinde Lug, published by University of Nebraska Press)

Mueller, who won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for The Land of Green Plums, is considered one of the most gifted contemporary German-language writers, a claim this newly translated collection of stories would seem to prove. Once again, Mueller takes us back to Communist Romania. But unlike her previous work, Nadirs is a very personal book, as much about Mueller’s own family sagas as it is about the inescapable scars of communism. Perhaps the most pertinent word to describe this dainty collection is contradiction—the narratives portray what is real and undeniable in a surreal and almost absurd way, yet the seemingly unadorned storytelling demands the maximum concentration from the reader. Originally published in German ten years ago, this book was well worth the wait; it is an important achievement in contemporary Eastern European literature. (Library Journal)


The Passport (translated by Martin Chalmers, published by Serpent’s Tail)

This English-language debut by a Romanian-born West Berliner is remarkable for its stylistic purity. Muller’s angry tale of an ethnic German anxious to emigrate from his stultifying Romanian village is relayed in deceptively straightforward sentences (“Katharina had sold her winter coat for ten slices of bread. Her stomach was a hedgehog. Every day Katharina picked a bunch of grass. The grass soup was warm and good”) that pile up in striking patterns (later, “the second snow came. . . . The hedgehog stabbed”). Intently focused prose animates the parochial town with its corrupt power brokers, gamey folk songs and a tree reputed to have eaten its own apples, as well as the problematic relations among the central character, his embittered wife and their nubile daughter, who, like her mother before her during the war, is forced to grant sexual favors to men of privilege. (Publishers Weekly)


Traveling on One Leg (translated by Valentina Glajar and Andre LeFevere, published by Northwestern University Press)

For some, the pain of exile is too great even to be named. So it is for Irene, the 35-year-old protagonist of this slender but intense novel. In the 1980s, Irene has emigrated to West Germany from an unnamed Eastern bloc country to escape political persecution. Adrift in Berlin, living first in a refugee hostel and then in an anonymous apartment complex, Irene struggles to maintain her sanity while caught in an ambiguously romantic quadrangle with three men. First there is Franz, a student a decade her junior; then there is his friend Stefan, a sociologist; last is Stefan’s friend Thomas, a gay man in perpetual emotional crisis. But Irene’s largest preoccupation is with herself, and the novel presents a knife-sharp portrait of her acute isolation and uprootedness. Irene’s anxiety as she faces her adoptive homeland’s hectoring refugee bureaucracy, her unsentimental observation of Berlin street life and her rigorously controlled homesickness is depicted in spare prose that is never less than striking. The reader with a distaste for indirection, or for the kind of heroine who considers children “eerie because they’re still growing,” will find this novel slow going. But those patient enough to pick out the plot line amid the poetry will be rewarded with a small trove of unforgettable images. (Publishers Weekly)


The Land of Green Plums (translated by Michael Hofmann, published by Northwestern University Press)

Five Romanian youths under the Ceausescu regime are the focus of this moving depiction of the struggle to become adults who keep “eyes wide open and tightly shut at the same time.” Through the suicide of a mutual friend, the unnamed narrator—a young woman studying to become a translator—meets a trio of young men with whom she shares a subjugated political and philosophic rebelliousness. The jobs the state assigns them after graduation pull each to a different quadrant of the country, and this, as well as the narrator’s new friendship with the daughter of a prominent Party member, strains their relations. The group manages to maintain its closeness anyway, through coded letters bearing strands of the sender’s hair as a tamper-warning. As the friends begin to lose their jobs and grow weary of being followed, threatened and pulled in for semi-regular interrogations, each one thinks increasingly about escape. Terrifyingly, the narrator finds herself changing into a stranger: “someone who keeps company with misery, to make sure it stays put.” Making her American debut, Muller is well-served by the workmanlike translation; though her lyrical writing falters badly at times (such as the baffling, repeated metaphor that gives the book its title), it also soars to rarefied heights. Most importantly, few books have conveyed with such clarity the convergence of terror and boredom under totalitarianism.


The Appointment (translated by Philip Boehm and Michael Hulse, published by Metropolitan)

The hardships and humiliations of Communist Romania are on display in this taut novel by the winner of the European Literature Prize (Müller, author of the well-received Land of Green Plums, emigrated to Berlin after being persecuted by the Romanian secret police). The narrator, an unnamed young dress-factory worker of the post-WWII generation, has been summoned for questioning by the secret police; she has been caught sewing notes into men’s suits destined for Italy, with the desperate message “marry me” along with her address. Accused of prostitution in the workplace (and told she is lucky the charge is not treason), she loses her job, and her life becomes subject to the whims of Major Albu, who summons her for random interrogation sessions. Her major preoccupation is holding on to her sanity. This is a nearly impossible feat in a society where opportunity is limited, trust is a commodity as scarce as decent food or shoe leather, and even sinister Party henchmen are shown to be trapped in a ridiculous charade. As she travels to a questioning session, the woman spools out the tale of her past: her attempt to achieve independence after a first marriage, only to hastily fall into a second one with Paul, an alcoholic who fashions illegal television antennas for the black market; and her friendship with the beautiful and doomed Lilli, a fellow factory worker. The sharp generational divide following the war and the dreadful ways in which people learn to cope with the Communist regime are threaded throughout as are some lighter moments, shaky though they may be. Appropriately disorienting and tightly wound, this perfectly controlled narrative offers a chilling picture of human adaptation and survival under oppression.

One last “I-will-beat-the-horse-dead” comment: Of the five books of Mueller’s available in English, four of them are published by university or independent presses. That sounds about right. And might be one of the reasons American publishers/media get all pissed about American authors not receiving the award—the money is flowing into the pockets of the small guys for once.

1 Or at least not revisit it too much: Really, why do Americans want the obvious American writers to always win? Isn’t this like rooting for the Yankees? What fun is it when UNC wins the NCAA tournament every other year? None at all. Fuck that noise. It’s much cooler when an “obscure” (by American standards at least) author is given such a great honor and has her/his books launched into bookstores across the country and into the hands of readers everywhere. It’s like Stephen Curry bringing Davidson to the brink of History. Besides, this isn’t a popularity contest—it’s an honor bestowed on a talented writer. Just let the patriotism go and use this award as a chance to find out about writers you don’t already know. (All that aside, my money’s on Thomas Ruggles Pynchon for 2010.)

8 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio’s Nobel Prize lecture, In the Forest of Paradoxes, (also available as a pdf file) was released last night.

It takes its title and starting point from a provocative passage from Stig Dagerman’s Essaer och texter:

How is it possible on the one hand, for example, to behave as if nothing on earth were more important than literature, and on the other fail to see that wherever one looks, people are struggling against hunger and will necessarily consider that the most important thing is what they earn at the end of the month? Because this is where he (the writer) is confronted with a new paradox: while all he wanted was to write for those who are hungry, he now discovers that it is only those who have plenty to eat who have the leisure to take notice of his existence.

It’s an age old issue—as an example, Le Clezio uses a story about Francois Rabelais taunting the scholars at the Sorbonne with “words plucked from the common tongue”—which is nevertheless, pretty interesting in our current context. Rather than “reveling in negativity” though, he goes on to praise literature as something that is necessary:

Literature—and this is what I have been driving at—is not some archaic relic that ought, logically, to be replaced by the audiovisual arts, the cinema in particular. Literature is a complex, difficult path, but I hold it to be even more vital today than in the time of Byron or Victor Hugo.

His first reason fro why literature is necessary is because it is made up of language:

The writer, the poet, the novelists, are all creatos. This does not mean that they invent language, it means that they use language to create beauty, ideas, images. [. . .] Without language there would be no science, no technology, no law, no art, no love.

The second reason is much more interesting to me, and is the section a number of papers (notably, the AP story and the one in The Guardian) have been focusing on:

There is a great deal of talk about globalization these days. People forget that in fact the phenomenon began in Europe during the Renaissance, with the beginnings of the colonial era. Globalization is not a bad thing in and of itself. Communication has accelerated progress in medicine and in science. Perhaps the generalization of information will help to forestall conflicts. Who knows, if the Internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler’s criminal plot would not have succeeded—ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day.

We live in the era of the Internet and virtual communication. This is a good thing, but what would these astonishing inventions be worth, were it not for the teachings of written language and books? To provide nearly everyone on the planet with a liquid crystal display is utopian. Are we not, therefore, in the process of creating a new elite, of drawing a new line to divide the world between those who have access to communication and knowledge, and those who are left out? [. . .]

And now, in this era following decolonization, literature has become a way for the men and women in our time to express their identity, to claim their right to speak, and to be heard in all their diversity. Without their voices, their call, we would live in a world of silence.

Culture on a global scale concerns us all. But it is above all the responsibility of readers—of publishers, in other words. True, it is unjust that an Indian from the far north of Canada, if he wishes to be heard, must write in the language of the conquerors—in French, or in English. True, it is an illusion to expect that the Creole language of Mauritius or the West Indies might be heard as easily around the world as the five or six languages that reign today as absolute monarchs over the media. But if, through translation, their voices can be heard, then something new is happening, a cause for optimism. Culture, as I have said, belongs to us all, to all humankind. But in order for this to be true, everyone must be given equal access to culture. The book, however old-fashioned it may be, is the ideal tool. It is practical, easy to handle, economical.

His final recommendations are pretty encouraging as well:

Joint publication with the developing countries, the establishment of funds for lending libraries and bookmobiles, and, overall, greater attention to requests from and works in so-called minority languages—which are often clearly in the majority—would enable literature to continue to be this wonderful tool for self-knowledge, for the discovery of others, and for listening to the concert of humankind, in all the rich variety of its themes and modulations.

Any speech calling for more literature in translation is a good speech in my opinion . . .

24 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

French translator Alison Anderson pointed me to this article from Bibliobs the literary section of the weekly French newsmagazin Nouvel Observateur.

Interesting what Toni Morrison has to say about the Horace Engdahl/American insularity situation:

Toni Morrison. – Je pense que ces propos reflètent effectivement, au moins en partie, la conception que se fait l’Académie suédoise de son prix de littérature. Car elle décerne tout le temps le Nobel à des Américains dans les autres domaines, mais en littérature, elle considère qu’ils ont quelque chose d’insulaire. Il se pourrait qu’il y ait un peu de narcissisme de la part des Américains, mais les talents ne manquent pas. L’autre problème est celui de la traduction. Je pense avant tout que nos éditeurs américains, quelle que soit l’importance des auteurs étrangers, n’achètent pas les droits de leurs œuvres. Ainsi, je ne savais même pas qui était cet homme [J.M.G. le Clézio, lauréat 2008].

Paraphrasing (loosely), she says that there’s a bit of narcissism on the part of Americans when it comes to the Nobel for literature, but that there are a lot of talented American writers. More interestingly, she points to the fact that editors don’t buy enough rights to foreign authors, so she didn’t even know who Le Clezio was . . .

9 October 08 | N. J. Furl | Comments

As reported everywhere in the damn world, French novelist Jean Marie Gustave le Clézio has been awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature.

So says the Swedish Academy: “[He is an] author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.”

Of course, this year the Prize for Literature garnered some extra attention due to some comments from the Academy’s Horace Engdahl, suggesting that the U.S. is too culturally insular. Some people got a little peeved, to say the least.

Avoiding comment on le Clézio himself, I do enjoy that the award then went to a Frenchman. As we all know, there is nothing more patently anti-American than that.

1 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [7]

A number of people had emailed or called me about the controversial statements made by Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary Horace Engdahl about American writing, basically stating that the U.S. is too culturally insular to have a writer worthy of the Nobel Prize. (The last American to win was Toni Morrison in 1993.)

“Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world . . . not the United States,” he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday. [. . .]

Speaking generally about American literature, however, he said U.S. writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” dragging down the quality of their work.

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

Although I think there are a lot of great American writers, you’ll get no argument from me re: our cultural insularity. Four hundred original translations of fiction and poetry a year doesn’t result in an open, idea-exchanging culture.

Of course, American writers and critics are capital-p pissed about this and quickly, and sharply, responded:

“You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures,” said David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker.

And:

Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the foundation which administers the National Book Awards, said he wanted to send Engdahl a reading list of U.S. literature.

“Such a comment makes me think that Mr. Engdahl has read little of American literature outside the mainstream and has a very narrow view of what constitutes literature in this age,” he said.

“In the first place, one way the United States has embraced the concept of world culture is through immigration. Each generation, beginning in the late 19th century, has recreated the idea of American literature.”

There’s a lot to say about this, although it requires a lot of walking the line between admitting America’s faults (like Sinclair Lewis did in his Nobel acceptance speech 78 years ago) and insulting the gifted, admired American writers alive today.

So rather than put together a measured response, here are a list of my first thoughts:

1) Hell yes, America is culturally insular, and props to Engdahl for pointing this out;

2) I wonder if this will cause a backlash against international literature, rather than cause more American writers to read books from beyond our borders;

3) Immigrant literature does add to our culture, but it’s not a 1:1 equivalent to literature in translation—it always comes up as a defense of our cultural ignorance though;

4) To ignore the force of the marketplace on publishers’ decisions of what to publish, of editors’ choices in editing, of writers’ styles in writing is short-sighted. Not that everyone bows down to the mass public, but please, this is still a business, and people want to be successful, and in America success equals big money;

5) Dubravka Ugresic should win the Nobel Prize. That would be awesome;

6) For months I’ve been trying to write (by “trying” I mean thinking about) a book/article proposal regarding my visits to other countries in search of unique fiction and the number of times I’ve had people try to pitch me a book because it was heavily influenced by contemporary American writers. Who wants to publish derivative work in translation? (Well, lots of people, so skip that.) I’d much rather find the book that’s influenced more by its countries own traditions, which will inevitably have been shaped by other literatures including works from America yet retain something unique and different;

7) Do American writers/critics really think we deserve to win the Nobel more frequently than other countries? I don’t. There are fantastic writers from all over the world who are equally as talented and important as American writers. Over the history of the prize, the U.S. has had a few nice runs, as have other countries. Almost by definition, the prize should be diverse and as global as possible;

8) It’s dangerous for anything, especially a “peace prize,” to be viewed in a nationalistic way. Celebrate the writers that win, rather than criticizing the committee for not picking more writers from your own country. Same would apply to Engdahl. Making fun of American culture is easier than falling down the stairs, but you could give a nod to the uber-talented at the same time;

9) I’m so glad I got to use one of my favorite internet-driven phrases as the title of a blog post, because, you know, Alfred Nobel created dynamite and the Nobel Prize, etc., etc.

31 January 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Doris Lessing last night formally received her Nobel prize for literature, saying: “Thank you does not seem enough.”

Ill health prevented Lessing, 88, from travelling to Sweden for a Nobel presentation in December. Instead, a ceremony took place for the prolific author at the Wallace Collection in London.

23 October 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

The Forward excerpts from a new book by Ruth Wisse called Jews and Power. In a discussion of the linguistic adaptability of Jews, she recounts the number of Jews who have won the Nobel Prize, and the number of languages in which they won the Prize.

Since the inauguration of the Nobel Prizes at the beginning of the twentieth century, Jews have received one-tenth of its awards for literature: in German, Paul Heyse (1910), Nellie Sachs (1966), and Elias Canetti (1981); in French, Henri Bergson (1927); in Russian, Boris Pasternak (1958) and Joseph Brodsky (1987); in English, Saul Bellow (1976), Nadine Gordimer (1991), and Harold Pinter (2005); in Hungarian, Imre Kertesz (2002); in Hebrew, Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1966); and in Yiddish, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978). This exceptional roster of Jewish Nobel laureates in so many different tongues powerfully contradicts the essentialist connection between nationhood and national language that was postulated by the nineteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, and it points to contrasting German and Jewish notions of identity.

- via Design Observer

7 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Cafe Babel has a short piece about the history of the Nobel Prize, or to be more specific, a short history of some of the controversies, such as Sartre rejecting the prize, Tolstoy being overlooked, etc.

But what caught my eye is this paragraph at the bottom:

Today, the Nobel Prize is faced with new accusations of straying from the impartiality envisioned by its founder. History shows that the Academy is partial to Europeans. No less than a quarter of the prizes awarded to date have gone to writers who work in English. Thirteen Francophone authors have been honoured, representing around 13% percent of the total. German speakers are not far behind, at 12% – thus three European languages account for half of all laureates. In comparison, China can claim only one laureate, and of the four Africans who have won the Prize, three write in English (Coetzee, Sonyenka and Gordimer). As well as being Europhile, the Academy tends to privilege male writers over females: to date there have been only ten female laureates.

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