Nobel’s literary constraints

Despite the perception that it has limited vision, the Swedish Academy has introduced the world to new writers

Updated - October 16, 2019 07:11 am IST

Published - October 16, 2019 12:15 am IST

The Nobel Peace Center, Oslo, Norway. File

The Nobel Peace Center, Oslo, Norway. File

In 2014, writer Peter Handke had told Austrian daily Die Presse that “the Nobel Prize should be abolished” and that winning brings “false canonisation” of literature. Does the Swedish Academy’s choice of Handke for the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature prove that he was right, as critics like philosopher Slavoj Zizek have told The Guardian ? Handke, a novelist, playwright and essayist, had downplayed Serbian atrocities in the Balkan war, defended Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic who was indicted of war crimes, and even spoke at Milosevic’s funeral in 2006. In a rare move, non-profit organisation PEN America criticised the selection, saying the writer “used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide.”

Why would the Academy choose a polarising writer like Handke for the top literary prize? After all, there were many others in the reckoning including Canadian author Margaret Atwood (who has since won the Booker Prize), Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Conde, Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the perennial contender Haruki Murakami.

Handke himself said he was “astonished” that he had been picked, calling the Academy “very courageous”. The Nobel Committee said that though Handke has, at times, “caused controversy, he cannot be considered an engaged writer in the sense of Sartre, and he gives us no political programs.” Jean-Paul Sartre had famously declined the prize in 1964 saying he didn’t want to be “institutionalised”. Handke has been awarded “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience”. The adverse reaction to his politics overshadowed appreciation of his work.

Many controversies

In pursuit of novel ways to draw attention to the Big Prize, the Academy seems to have been caught on the wrong foot again. After the sexual assault allegation that forced it to abandon the ceremony last year, it sought redemption, but it has been a difficult return. In the days leading up to October 10, Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel Committee, had said, “We are looking all over the world”. On announcement day, however, it was found that the Swedish Academy had done no such geographical balancing act, picking an Austrian and a Polish instead. While it failed to stand up to the very thing it was accused of — being too Eurocentric — the choice of Olga Tokarczuk from Poland for the 2018 Prize was a step in the right direction. She is only the 15th woman to get the Literature Prize. Tokarczuk ( The Journey of the Book People , Flights, The Books of Jacob ) had received the ire of Polish nationalists and death threats for saying that Polanders too had committed “horrendous acts” as colonisers.

Redefining literature

Over the last few years, the Academy has redefined boundaries of literature in its choices. In 2016, when it awarded the Prize to American Bob Dylan, some criticised the decision to award a singer-songwriter a prize reserved for literature. It irked others that literary giants like Jorge Luis Borges and James Joyce had been denied the prize earlier. While the choice of Dylan was surprising, his song-poems including Blowing in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone have become anthems. In 2015, the prize went to the Belarusian writer of oral history Svetlana Alexievich, raising a few eyebrows, but only perhaps because her books were not readily available. Her work looks at crises like the Second World War ( The Unwomanly Face of War ); the collapse of the Soviet Union ( SecondHand Time ); and the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl ( Voices from Chernobyl ) through ordinary voices. Hers is a critical record of history that the world may have missed without the prize.

Like the Peace Prize, the Literature Prize has often been deemed political. It was only in 1986 that an African, Wole Soyinka, won. After Elfriede Jelinek, Austrian playwright and moralist against multiculturalism, was awarded in 2004 to some dismay, the 2005 prize went to a safer bet, playwright Harold Pinter. When V.S. Naipaul got the prize in 2001, the irony was lost on no one that in the year of 9/11, the writer of Among the Believers , a critical work on Islam in Asia, had been honoured, though Naipaul could have bagged it for A House for Mr Biswas alone.

Writing in 2011 after the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer won, novelist and translator Tim Parks pointed at the “essential silliness of the prize and our own foolishness at taking it seriously.” It doesn’t help that the prize has often showed it has limited horizons. Why else was the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe overlooked? Or Leo Tolstoy snubbed for the inaugural Prize for Literature in 1901? It went to French poet Sully Prudhomme, who must have gained new readers after the announcement.

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