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Nobel Prize in literature: There will be a test

October 9, 2009
Herta Muller

Herta Muller

The stern if thoughtful folks in Stockholm have given us another homework assignment by selecting an obscure German novelist, Herta Muller, for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Herta who?

Here’s where I’m supposed to throw out a lot of hastily gathered info on Muller to make it sound like, well, of course (!) I knew her work all along. Truth is, while I read as much as humanly possible, I had never heard of Muller before yesterday.

My ignorance could be evidence former Nobel permanent secretary Horace Engdahl was right when he said in 2008 that Americans are too parochial and self-obsessed, don’t read enough literature in translation, and besides, Europe is more cultured and produces better writers. So there.

Here, have some Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio (last year’s winner, from France)–he’s good for you, you stupid Americans!

Or it could be evidence, as Engdahl’s critics charged in the resulting controversy, that it’s Europeans who are parochial, resenting American dominance of popular and high culture, and besides, the Nobel committee tends to make selections on political and PR  considerations more than literary ones.

Can it be a coincidence that a novelist like Muller, who suffered under communism, is selected in the same year as the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall? That’s the political angle. Plus, she can use the publicity more than famous contenders like Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth or Amos Oz. That’s the PR angle.

None of this should be held against Herta, a 56-year-old Romanian-born German writer who was censored and persecuted under the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Only a handful of her 20 novels are available in English, but that will doubtless change now that she’s won the Nobel, which comes with a $1.4 million cash award.

“In its citation, the Nobel committee wrote that Müller, ‘with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed,'” reports the Los Angeles Times

Muller’s novels in translation — among them The Passport, The Appointment, The Land of the Green Plums — are “dark, closely observed and sometimes violent” works that explore exile and the “grim realities” of life under communism, according to The New York Times.

To learn more about Muller, who left Romania in 1987 after death threats greeted her refusal to become an informant for the government, start with the basic info at An excellent profile of Muller’s life and work is available from The Guardian.

Among the writers considered realistic candidates for this year’s prize, Muller was a 50-1 long shot. Most observers expected Israeli novelist Amos Oz to be selected. Americans Joyce Carole Oates and Philip Roth were also considered strong contenders. The last U.S. Nobel winner in literature, Toni Morrison, came in 1993.

Engdahl’s successor, Peter Englund worried just two days ago that the prize might be too “Eurocentric,” reports the Associated Press.

But after announcement of Muller’s selection, Engdahl said it was only natural Europeans most often win a prize that is, after all, selected by Europeans. “If you are European (it is) easier to relate to European literature,” he said.

Not all Europeans are thrilled about the Nobel’s “Eurocentrism.” Indeed, some seem downright embarrassed by it. German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, for example, refused to talk about Muller’s selection with The New York Times.

Another German critic, Helmuth Karasek, said Roth is long overdue for the prize, though he did praise Muller’s work, comparing her to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet-era dissident writer.

A third German critic, Thomas Steinfeld, went further: “Readers and literature critics will have to, until further notice, separate themselves from a much-loved notion: that the Nobel Prize for Literature is a reward for the best writer and the best works,” Steinfeld wrote on literature blog of Suddeutsche Zeitung, a leading newspaper. He added that Müller is “not a bad author. By no means.”

For her part, Muller seemed stunned by the award, clearly uncomfortable in a press conference, according to The New York Times. “I can’t even talk about it,” she said. “Somehow it’s too early. I think I need time to put it all in order.”

Meanwhile, Oz, Oates, Roth and any other disappointed contenders can console themselves in the knowledge that the eligible great writers of the past who didn’t win, either, includes Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Anton Chekhov, Thomas Hardy, Jorge Luis Borges, Mark Twain, Josef Conrad, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, to name but a few.

Better company, I would say, than Dario Fo, Elfriede Jelinek, Pearl Buck, John Galsworthy, or Carl Gustaf Verner Von Heidenstam, cited in 1916 as “the leading representative of a new era in our literature.” There are some good writers in this list — and one supremely mediocre one — but on balance, not winning the Nobel Prize for Literature may be more of a distinction than winning the thing.

Except, of course, for the $1.4 million.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2009 1:29 pm

    Thanks, Chauncey, for your honest and insightful reportage. So who’s the mediocre one?

  2. Candice permalink
    October 9, 2009 9:09 pm

    Not read the book, but I am sure she is very deserving. As for the Eurocentric thing–we are probably all a little “centric” about the nation we call home. Nothing wrong with being proud of your own until you start hating everyone different.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 12, 2009 11:12 am

    The “mediocre one” is….Pearl Buck.

  4. Love permalink
    October 12, 2009 8:35 pm


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