Thursday, December 11, 2008

Oh, the noble Nobel

Yesterday the French writer Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio received the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm. 'Jean-Marie Who?' asked many of my Anglo-Saxon friends when the winner was announced earlier in the year. My friends are not particularly ignorant people. You can't blame them for not knowing Le Clezio. Like many previous Nobel literature laureates, he doesn't have a high profile outside his own country.

The only reason I happen to have read him, is because I happen to have lived in France for the last couple of years. I try to read at least one classic and one recently published French novel each year - in French, of course. Not very ambitious, I know, but it takes me much longer to read French than English, and let's face it, as far as modern novels go, I haven't been missing that much. French literature hasn't exactly set the world alight in the past few years. The days of Camus and Sartre and their international glory are long gone. The last Frenchman who won the Nobel Prize for Literature was Claude Simon in 1985. 'Claude Who?' you might well ask. I haven't read him either. That was long before I started living in France and feeling obliged to do my bit for French culture.

But Le Clezio's award got me thinking about other Nobel Prize authors and how often 'ordinary readers' don't know these illustrious names - and even less their work - when they are crowned.

Most people on earth would probably die without ever having read anything published by a Nobel Prize writer. Granted, there are a few literary souls, often academics, for whom it is a question of honour to have read the work of every single Nobel Prize winner of the last fifty years. If they don't know the writer by the time s/he is anointed, they'll hide this gap in their cultural knowledge and immediately start reading her/his work to catch up. And then, somewhere between the ignorami who never read anything worthwhile and the academics who try to read everything worthwhile, there are the rest of us. 'Ordinary readers' like me who turn to books for pleasure or illumination rather than pain or academic gain, and who sometimes know and even adore the work of Nobel laureates, while just as often they leave us cold.

When I look at the long list of laureates of the past century, some personal favourites jump out at me: the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1996), the American Toni Morrison who wrote Beloved and other beautifully crafted novels(1993), Gabriel Garcia Marquez who made magic realism acceptable to cynical western readers (1982), the ever-green and ever-wise Saul Bellow (1976), the French-Irish playwright Samuel Beckett (1969), the French existential philosopher Albert Camus (1957), The American playwright Eugene O'Neill (1936)...

But there are just as many whom I haven't read and, frankly, I have no burning desire to rush out and buy all their books: the Austrian Elfriede Jelinek (2004), the Chinese Gao Xingjian (2000), the Spanish Camilo Jose Cela (1989)... And there are some whose names I don't even know, complete and utter strangers to me and my bookshelves. Is this my fault? I mean, do you know the Swedish witers Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson who shared the prize in 1974? Or, another double act, Shmuel Agnon and Nelly Sachs who were laureates in 1966?

And of course the further back you go on the list, the more unknown names you'll come across: Halldor Laxness (1955), Johannes V Jensen (1944), Grazia Deledda (1926), Wladyslaw Reymont (1924), all the way back to Sully Prudhomme and Theodor Mommsen, the very first laureates in 1901 and 1902.

Surely this must prove that the most famous of all literary prizes does not automatically bring international and immortal fame?

I might be horribly wrong about some of these writers I haven't read. I might be missing the literary thrill of my life. I might even, at some later and more evolved stage of my existence, learn to love some of them. Who knows? That's the wonder of reading, isn't it? That you never know, that you can always be surprised, unexpectedly enchanted, instantaneously overwhelmed.

That's why we keep on reading, isn't it?