When this text is eventually published the world will know who received the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature. It will have been announced yesterday. The person in question will already be lauded worldwide, in today’s newspapers next Friday, with a few dissenting voices perhaps mentioning cultural politics and even fewer voices claiming that prize-giving is invalid, that it reduces literature (and by association, the human spirit) to a competitive sport. But mostly we’ll just participate in the joy, because everybody loves a party. And just like we know that our birthdays and Christmases and whatever don’t have any gigantic “actual” meaning, they’re still fun and we’d like to keep ‘em fun, if possible.
When this text is written, however, the world (with me in it) does not know who will receive the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, seeing as now it’s Sunday the 3rd of October and the announcement isn’t due until Thursday. That is to say, your yesterday, in my four days time. This is all due to a complicated lag in publishing tangible printed material that I won’t go into. Suffice it to say, it could not have been otherwise.
I am terribly excited, of course.
The front-runner of poetry for the LitNobel this year, at Ladbrokes bookies, is Sweden’s own Tomas Tranströmer – a poet most people in the world have not heard of, but is an immense presence within the inconceivable world of poetry. The Swedes have not got a LitNobel since 1974, when Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson had to share one. I don’t know how that works. Maybe you get half a gold medal. Or each winner gets a smaller medal, than had he or she won alone.
And it seems Ladbrokes feels poets are particularly thinkable winners this year, with Adam Zagajewski (Poland), Adonis (Syria), Ko Un (Korea) and Les Murray (Australia) following Tranströmer on the list. They are mostly as or more obscure than Tranströmer (nobody reads poetry anymore, I say, shaking my head indignantly, last Sunday).
By now (or then, I mean, at publication), I guess you will know who got it. It probably wasn’t Tranströmer, was it? Nor was it Philip Roth? It never is. But they always mention him. He’s the guy that never gets it. Apparently he’s nonchalant about it, doesn’t feel it’s any special honour – he feels american literature has towered over world literature for decades and that they don’t need swedish Nobels for justification. Maybe he’s right. But it still sounds a bit arrogant, with a tinge of bitter disappointment. And, I would venture, it has something to do with his involvement with american literature – I doubt that he has read Tranströmer or Ko Un. Americans don’t translate much, as Horace Engdahl, member of the Swedish academy has pointed out, they don’t speak other languages much – and they’re mostly not in any position to judge non-english literature (whereas most people, worldwide, read english-language literature – either in the original or in translation – which is one of the reasons why Philip Roth is so famous).
The race for the Nobel is no longer exciting, not where you are sitting, but over here, in the past last sunday, we’re still all very anxious to know. The writer chosen will enjoy immense rekindling of sales and translations worldwide, increased respectability and mentions, interviews, acknowledgment and critical response. But it doesn’t last. It never does. In three or four months people will be going: “Tomas who?” Or “Did Philip Roth ever get it?” Or “Ko Un who?” (Am I right, was it Ko Un?) Oh, sure, a few nerds still remember Elfriede Jelinek and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio – and a few will remember Thursday’s winner, but not many will be able to spell their names correctly and even fewer than that will be familiar with their work (although some will have bought it today – or tomorrow at the latest).
Because despite the good party, the good fun, the medals and the boatloads of cash – despite the respect, the myth-making qualities, the critical debates and the high-fallutin’ rhetoric – we all know that literature isn’t a competitive sport and nobody can tell you which books enlighten and which don’t. Except for you, of course. But then again, you might wrong.
Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine.