By Derbyshire, Jonathan
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 137, No. 4928-4930
In October, shortly before the Swedish Academy awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature to the French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, its permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, gave an interview to Associated Press. "There is powerful literature in all big cultures," Engdahl declared. "But you can't get away from the fact that Europe is still the centre of the literary world ... not the United States. The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature ... That ignorance is restraining."
No American writer had won the Nobel since Toni Morrison in 1993--and now we knew why. For all the apparent vitality of fiction in the US during the intervening 15 years--the miraculously fertile autumn of Philip Roth's career, say, or the formal daring and intellectual scope of major novels by David Foster Wallace, William T Vollmann and Jonathan Franzen, to name only three members of a notably gifted generation--the American scene, in Engdahl's view, was irredeemably parochial.
The response from the US was swift and predictable. The editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, listed just some of the great writers the Nobel committee has failed to honour down the years: Proust, Joyce and Nabokov. An organisation with such oversights on its record ought to "spare us the categorical lectures", he said. And Michael Dirda of the Washington Post wondered if Engdahl had really been paying attention in all the time since he and his colleagues gave the prize to Morrison. "He is just betraying an insular attitude towards a very diverse country."
Engdahl wasn't really--or, at least, not only--complaining about America's alleged literary provincialism, of course. He is certainly right that the Americans (and the British, for that matter) don't translate as much as they should: whereas in France almost a third of all works of fiction published in a given year will be in translation, across the Atlantic that figure is closer to one-thirtieth. But the principal reason for this is the global hegemony of the English language.
The real cause of Engdahl's angst, therefore, is that what he called the "big dialogue of literature" is today actually being conducted mostly in English--by inhabitants of Britain's former colonies, for instance, especially those in south Asia and the Caribbean; and also by non-anglophone writers who have followed Conrad and Nabokov in choosing to write in English. One of the most interesting and critically acclaimed novels to have been published in the United States this year is The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-born writer who had only a rudimentary command of the language when he arrived in America in 1992.
Indeed, Hemon's is an interesting case. For among the complexities flattened out by Engdahl's vague appeal to an undifferentiated "Europe" is the predicament historically faced by writers who, like Hemon, come from the smaller European nations. One thinks, for example, of the Romanian writer E M Cioran. Looking back in 1949 on his younger self, Cioran wrote of his inner circle in Bucharest: "Located in a corner of Europe, scorned and neglected by the world, we wanted to call attention to ourselves ... We wanted to rise up to the surface of history: we revered scandals, the only means, we thought, of avenging the obscurity of our condition..." Ultimately, avenging the obscurity of his condition meant, for Cioran, leaving for France and writing in French.
Cioran is describing there what Milan Kundera, in his most recent book, The Curtain, calls the "provincialism of small nations". This is a kind of defensive pride that regards the "large context of world literature" with suspicion. Kundera contrasts it with the provincialism of bigger nations which turn their backs on world literature, not because they fear it, but because their own cultures seem to them "sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere". …