It didn't go to an American author.
That's what the headlines of most papers seem to report, of the news that Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio has been awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Herald Tribune and Fox News carry the same story, and the Washington Post shares the same headline, "France's Le Clezio Wins Nobel Literature Prize". Even the New York Times appears to want to underline the sentiment, by listing previous prize winners alongside their country of birth. The BBC website simply states, "Author Le Clezio wins Nobel prize." Reuters in contrast, reads "Nomadic" writer wins Nobel prize."
Where few choose to focus is on Le Clezio's diverse background, ethnicity and extensive writing, with its engaging positions on ecology and humanity. The Post dedicates one paragraph to his writing, and four related to 'the controversy' and its connected remarks.
This is the controversy created last month by Horace Engdahl, the Permanent Secretary of the Nobel Committee for Literature when he told the Associated Press that American literature is, "too isolated, too insular," and American writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.
After the award announcement, Engdahl emphasized Le Clezio's non-insularity.
"He is a great writer of variety," Engdahl said, who "has come to include other civilizations, other modes of thought, other modes of living than the Western in his writing."
He added that Le Clezio is "a cosmopolitan," and pointed out that the author "lives in parts of the year in New Mexico" as well as in France and on the island of Mauritius, where he has family ties.
The press release from the Nobel Permanent Secretary announced the author's name and described him in a further nineteen-word statement as an, “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization”.
So why is there all the fuss about the remarks which Engdahl later agreed were rather 'generalisations'?
It is in fact the 'new departures' and 'beyond...the reigning civilization' which encapsulate the true meaning of the Nobel award.
The Nobel Prize for Literature is not like The Pulitzer, which must be 'distinguished' (and by an American author). Nor is it like the Man Booker, which has 'literary excellence' as its sole focus (for writers from the British Commonwealth and Ireland).
The Nobel Prize for literature was determined in Alfred Nobel's will to be for work which was outstanding in an idealist direction "som inom litteraturen har producerat det utmärktaste i idealisk rigtning."
This differs significantly from the wording of the achievements in the other fields, such as chemistry, which was to be awarded for simply 'the greatest achievement or improvement', "vigtigaste upptäck eller förbättring."
The addition of the 'ideal(ist) direction' may be ambiguous. Is it to move towards an ideal in literature, meaning perfection of writing, or to address ideals beyond writing? Ideals in either case create a value judgment. It is not enough to be the most outstanding writing, it must also achieve some higher purpose.
It has been awarded primarily to writers whose work has, over a sustained period of time, not only achieved recognised literary excellence in writing, but has 'pushed the envelope' to borrow a phrase from our American cousins, in other areas of idealism. The work of past Nobel winners typically addressed contemporary political, social or human rights issues. Were they ever awarded without controversy? When the very foundation of the award is based on judgment of value, it can hardly fail to be.
1907 winner Rudyard Kipling set much of his work in British Empire ruled India, and his prolific work stands as testimony to many who experienced that period from all sides; about the military, the prejudice and eternal struggles of identity and belonging. 1934 saw Luigi Pirandello win post-WW1 in the rising tide of fascism of Mussolini's Italy. His writing often addressed the sense of disproportion between ideals and reality. His own politics was a cause of controversy and yet confusing, on the one side he famously tore up his Party card, and on the other gave his Nobel medal to be melted down to fund the Abyssinia campaign. Perhaps indeed it is this struggle which often characterises the Nobel Prize winners' writing. The struggle between ideals and idealism and great writing whilst at the same time being as Pirandello, "only a man on the world."
Perhaps a contemporary American writer will be a Nobel winner in the near future? Le Clezio is widely reported as having given Philip Roth a commendation in his remarks upon the announcement of the Prize. And if troubled times, political, social and human rights issues create ground for winning work, then the time is ripe. At least if you read Garrison Keillor's comments today in the International Herald Tribune, the American people have enough on their plates right now, without worrying whether they are thought of as 'insular' or not. Why the newspapers don't focus on the reasons that Le Clezio did win, as opposed to that it didn't go to an American author, may become clear. One of the main reasons is probably that few, including myself, have heard of him. "The sound of America's literary journalists searching Wikipedia en masse is deafening." to quote Time magazine. Personally, I think it is also hard to be an American right now. The American Dream is an ideal. The day-to-day grind of Joe Bloggs in an uncertain and challenging economic situation does not live up to that dream. It's easy to point the finger elsewhere and see who wouldn't 'play nice' to defend anything that offends a sense of patriotism. But it's at just such a difficult time that we need the greatest responsibility in the media and literature. It's a time when we need to read the works of writers who are deemed to have higher values that may challenge our own. In the words of Joseph Pulitzer, "Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together...The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations."
Only in retrospect will we see who has been judged to have risen to the challenge of being 'outstanding in an idealist direction' in our own time. And it won't be without controversy.
Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was born on April 13, 1940, in Nice, but both parents had strong family connections with the former French colony, Mauritius (conquered by the British in 1810). At the age of eight, Le Clézio and his family moved to Nigeria, where the father had been stationed as a doctor during the Second World War. During the month-long voyage to Nigeria, he began his literary career with two books, Un long voyage and Oradi noir, which even contained a list of “forthcoming books.” He grew up with two languages, French and English. In 1950 the family returned to Nice. After completing his secondary education, he studied English at Bristol University in 1958-59 and completed his undergraduate degree in Nice (Institut d’Études Littéraires) in 1963. He took a master’s degree at the University of Aix-en-Provence in 1964 and wrote a doctoral thesis on Mexico’s early history at the University of Perpignan in 1983. He has taught at universities in Bangkok, Mexico City, Boston, Austin and Albuquerque among other places. (More.)
Le Clezio made his breakthrough as a novelist with "Desert," in 1980, a work the academy said "contains magnificent images of a lost culture in the North African desert contrasted with a depiction of Europe seen through the eyes of unwanted immigrants."
That novel also won Le Clezio a prize from the French Academy.
Thursday, 9 October 2008
It didn't go to an American author.