Scandinavia's Nobel Literature Laureates

By Dewey, Donald | Scandinavian Review, Autumn 2015 | Go to article overview

Scandinavia's Nobel Literature Laureates


Dewey, Donald, Scandinavian Review


IT HAPPENS MORE OFTEN THAN MANY OF US want to admit. The Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in literature, announces the newest recipients) in literature, and we go, "Who? How come I never heard of him (her)? How great can she (he) be? If I go down to The Last Surviving Bookshop on the comer will I find any of his (her) books in English? And if not, what would that say about her (him)?" Not much, we need to believe as the price for defending our ignorance.

We're dealing with several problems here. The first one is a lack of understanding of what the global purview of the Nobel Committee means. What it definitely does not mean is that its annual selection is determined by The New York Times best-seller list present or past; by authors studied at the university under the course title of Great Writers Who Wrote Only in the Acceptable Languages of English, French, Spanish, German and Russian; or by those, read or unread, whose names have been so vaguely familiar for so long that, vague as their talents might vaguely be, they would seem to deserve an award just for hanging around in our memory for so long-vague as that demonstrably is. The first problem, in other words, is dealing with the fact that many people have been writing for a long time in languages other than those covered by die Penguin Classics.

The second problem is getting over the idea, speculated as it often is, that die yearly recipient is chosen according to some eeny-meeny-miney-mo system of one-for-you and one-for-you-over-there and one-foryou-all-the-way-back-there, with the one meaning a continent, country or government that could use a little good news. As has been shown more than once, some governments don't want any good news at any time, to the point that they'll prohibit a recipient from showing up in Stockholm just in case he (she) has written an awkward speech for the occasion. A sub-category of this problem is viewing the annual Stockholm ceremonies as a World Series; i.e., how so-and-so defeated all those other so-and-sos in playoffs in order to wear his (her) medal. Clue: No recipient has ever proclaimed the intention of going directly from Stockholm to Disneyland. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, observation is selection and selection follows observation; he didn't say anything about a ballgame.

But with good will and fewer beers we can overcome these blinders. Where things get much trickier is in the retrospect-in the gander back to yesteryear's choices, to the decision to honor that given recipient's lifetime accomplishments and extraordinary place in his (her) culture, and . . . Wait a minute! Him? Her? What could they have been thinking!!? They aren't even in Amazon's Top 14,850! There are talk show hosts in Sioux City who have more influence today! What were those world literature experts thinking back then??!!

What they were thinking, of course, was what seemed like a good idea at the time. Would we like to probe a little more deeply into such choices as Paul Heyse of Germany, John Galsworthy of Great Britain and Pearl Buck of the United States? Sure, we would; at the very least it might offer a few insights into what used to impress people but no longer does. But it's too late for that kind of inquiry. Heyse, Galsworthy and Buck may not be on many university Recommended Reading lists anymore, but they are very visibly in the World Almanac list amid such Nobel laureates as Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw and William Faulkner, and that's all there is to it. Making peace with the past doesn't only mean forgiving that high school chemistry teacher who flunked us.

Now here's the question for readers of the Scandinavian Review: Of the 15 Scandinavians who have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, how many have you read? (And sorry, no, they do not include Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Gunnar Ekelof. . . ) More delicately, how many do you like and would rank as deserving the special notice conferred by the Nobel Prize? …

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