Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Two Cheers for the Nobel Prize

In the balance, Alfred Nobel turned to philanthropy far too late. His invention of dynamite in 1867 will forever outweigh the millions in cash awards distributed annually since 1901 to physicists, chemists, physicians, economists, statesmen and writers. (1) That literature is still considered, at least by the Nobel foundation, to be as important to civilization as science, medicine, peace and the world economy is heartening. Except that some of their choices have been counter-intuitive.

Since 2001, the cash award has amounted to $10 million. But aside from this considerable sum, what has this award done for literature? For publishers it means prestige, but it also means revenue. For individual writers it means a career-confirming windfall that can set them up for the rest of their lives and finally free them from the necessity of living by their wits. But when one is confronted with the list of Nobel laureates, one sees the real cost of this prestige and all the cash. Where are James Joyce, Robert Musil, Nabokov, Borges, Schnitzler, Robert Frost, Anna Akhmatova, Colette, Rilke, Paul Celan, Yannis Ritsos, Pavese, Flannery O'Connor an D.H. Lawrence, to name only the most obvious? Instead we find John Galsworthy, Pearl Buck, Mikhail Sholokhov, John Steinbeck, Jean-Paul Sartre (who, true to form, refused the prize), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, J.M.G. LeClezio (this year's winner and the author of stubbornly unreadable texts), and a host of others who would be forgotten by now, had they not won the Nobel prize. Gosh thanks, Alfred.

The last American writer to win the Nobel Prize was Toni Morrison in 1993. Apparently there was a great deal of lobbying for Morrison by Oprah Winfrey & company. What Ms Winfrey knows about literature could be printed on a Bazooka bubble gum wrapper. But Morrison was the first American to win since Saul Bellow in 1976, whence one can only remark, "what a falling off was there" in those seventeen years!

To further confuse matters, the Nobel foundation has occasionally flirted rather shamelessly with politics. (2) Certainly awarding Harold Pinter the prize in 2005 was a political act. His best work was far behind him, but he was a vocal opponent of Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq. Swedes, you see, haven't fought in a real war for centuries, so they are preoccupied with other people's wars. Elfrieda Jelinek was the first woman to win the prize (2004) since Toni Morrison, and a more unattractive writer of either gender would be hard to find. Dario Fo is far more a radical agit-prop prankster than a writer.

But then, one has to remind oneself, they gave the award to V.S. Naipaul in 2001, to Gunter Grass in 1999 (before his Wehrmacht war record became public knowledge), to Jose Saramago in 1998, Kenzaburo Oe in 1994, Joseph Brodsky in 1987, Czeslaw Milosz in 1980, Pablo Neruda in 1971. The contribution these writers have made to our collective humanity is equal to, if not greater than, the discoveries in medicine, economics, physics and chemistry - which improve our material lives while neglecting our souls.

(1) "My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace." Alfred Nobel
(2) Politics has made a mockery of the Nobel Peace Prize. While ignoring Gandhi - for whom such an award was surely invented - the Nobel foundation has seen fit to give it to murderers like Yassir Arafat and Henry Kissinger and to religious fanatics like Mother Teresa.

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