Nobel Prize 2015: My picks.

So originally I planned on mostly just reposting my old 2014 picks (because I, uh, picked wrong, as always), but I did end up modifying them. I mean, look, I have become very impatient with the insistence of the Academy to elect good-but-not-great white or European writers. I always found that the best attitude is not “who should win it instead” – but “has the winner deserved it?” Because the pool of excellent & important writers who cannot all win it, is just too large. And opinions vary. I wrote a longish piece on Modiano in the wake of his win, you can read it here. He’s very good, but he’s just not Nobel material. None of his work really stands out from the larger body of French postwar literature that examines collective and personal memory. The best writer of the bunch is probably Claude Simon, with Jorge Semprún a close second, and writers like Jean Rouaud and Patrick Modiano following behind that. Simon is an undeniably great writer (a very deserving Nobel winner), and while Modiano is not following in his footsteps, following a different literary lineage, I would argue he’s not appreciably different enough to warrant a Nobel Prize while other writers languish. A French Nobel prize – how, after the already dubious (but at least interesting) election of Le Clèzio, could it not have gone to Yves Bonnefoy? Or 91 year old Michel Tournier, whose best work far outstrips Modiano’s best? Or if French language, why not Assia Djebar? She passed away this year and it’s a shame she never won Literature’s most prestigious award.

And while we discuss whether another white or European writer should win it (Banville, Roth, Fosse, Oates are among the names I heard over the past weeks), we hear nothing about writers like Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, who writes excellent novels about the female experience in a country between colonialism and modernity. She’s smart, good, popular and significant and yet people dare to name Philip Roth as a deserving writer. Or how about Guyanese novelist, poet and essayist Wilson Harris. Harris is 94 years old, and has not won a Nobel prize yet despite having written an important and inarguably excellent (and extensive) body of work that’s insightful, experimental, political and addictively readable. Why wasn’t he picked yet or why isn’t he at least being prominently discussed, especially since it felt a few years ago as if the academy was doing a tour of all the important writers that were on the brink of dying, giving the prize to deserving and old writers like Pinter, Lessing and Tranströmer. They are the kind of significant, excellent writers that we sometimes think must already have won it. In general, as I pointed out last year, the award appeared to settle into a “sure why not” pattern of boring but unobjectionable writers.

And yet, much as I liked my ‘observed’ pattern, Modiano does not fit it. If he died unrecognized there would have been no outcry about it, nor was there a general clamoring for his election, as there was for writers like Vargas Llosa. In fact, a different pattern, less acceptable, emerges now. These selections have been so safe, so European-friendly that I’m hesitant to be happy about rumors that László Krasznahorkai, a truly, deeply, excellent writer may win the award. He would be more than deserving, but at this point, the award needs to look at other continents, at other cultures, at other kinds of writers. And by that I don’t mean Haruki Murakami. In lieu of ranting about him, I direct you to this piece written by my good friend Jake Waalk on this blog. So let’s go on to my picks.

ONE  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most deserving. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but two years after Mo Yan’s win, that’s not going to happen. My list of poets tends to be headlined by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Given the circumstances outlined in my introduction, however, if an American poet makes the cut, I would vote for Nathaniel Mackey. Mackey is an African-American poet who has just won the Bollingen Prize, the single most prestigious award for poetry in the US. His work is powerful, experimental, moving and important. He draws from Modernist traditions and from postmodern impulses – but really, at this point, he has become a tradition in himself. Jazz, biography, politics and the limits of poetry are among his topics. There are other influential experimental US poets who are still alive, but few can match Mackey for his mastery of language and his inventiveness in poetry and prose. Mackey would be an excellent and deserving pick. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis/Adunis (Adūnīs) whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. In a time of religious fights and infights, of interpretations and misinterpretations, his work engages the language of the Qu’ran inventively, critically, beautifully, offering a poetic theology of modern man. A final intriguing option would be Ko Un. I have read his work in English translation, but I don’t read Korean, and can’t really discuss him. I find him intriguing and interesting, but there’s no way I can adequately discuss him. Selfishly, I would root for him winning just to read more essays on his work.

TWO Like poetry, nonfiction which has not had a winner in decades. So as in the previous case, I will mention more than one here. #1 surely should be Umberto Eco. While he’s also a novelist, and perhaps more widely known as such, his work in the fringes of philosophy and in literary criticism and theory is significant, wide ranging and influential. I don’t think any other writer as important and accomplished and widely read in his field is still alive. What’s more, his work is fantastically well written, at least in English translation. Similar things apply to my other pick in this category, Hilary Putnam. I always thought Stanley Cavell should be considered, with his wide range from philosophy to literary and film criticism, but as long as Hilary Putnam is still around, a nonfiction Nobel that is not awarded to him or Eco would be upsetting, Putnam’s increasingly mystical examinations of reality and language are blindingly well written and incredibly influential, even among the many people disagreeing with him.

THREE Meanwhile, the novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gĩkũyũ and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, politcal and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions. Wilson Harris, who I mentioned in my introduction, is a better writer in my opinion, but would be more of a stretch for the academy.

Four So the fourth pick I am least sure. If a white/European novelist were to win it, after all, who would I be least upset about? There are a couple of excellent/important writers who are too young to win it, among them Romanian writer Mircea Cărtărescu and Russian emigré novelist Mikhail Shishkin. Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. So who? Let me pick 2. There’s László Krasznahorkai who is pretty much universally recognized for his excellence. He draws on an (Austro-)Hungarian tradition of paranoia and darkness, but spins it into an intellectually brilliant and musically devastating form that nobody else can achieve right now. But the death of Siegfried Lenz, who was more than deserving of the award, reminded me of the now best German living active novelist: Reinhard Jirgl. A disciple of Heiner Müller, Jirgl rose from being a mechanic and stage hand to winning German literature’s most prestigious award, the Büchner Preis. Jirgl’s work, originally prevented from being published in the GDR, initially was highly influenced by Müller, whose mixture of stark physicality, and strenuously literary, even stiff, language pervades Jirgl’s Genealogie des Tötens, a book that collects his earliest manuscripts that were prevented from being published in the GDR. Another influence on that book, and more, on his later work, is Arno Schmidt. In his later work, Jirgl interrogates impotence and the violence of social relationships and injustice. His language is literary and inventive, and as his work progresses, he increasingly changes and manipulates the limits of the form of the literary novel, by offering Cortázar-like shortcuts through the sequence of the novel (Abtrünnig) or by engaging with the genre of science fiction (Nichts von euch auf Erden). Quietly, he has become part of the intellectual, historical and moral conscience of Germany, a country increasingly unafraid (again) of waging war on others, and a country that is trying to exculpate itself from its awful early 20th century history. Jirgl has won almost every German prize imaginable but his powerful and gorgeously written work has not found recognition outside of Germany and France. (ISBN)

Nobel Prize 2014: my picks

Since I have never correctly picked (well, Tranströmer, kind of) the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, my picks should not be given much attention. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to offer my suggestions. So here are five of them. With a few exceptions, I am not trying to second guess the academy. They are not unlikely to offer it to another boring candidate. It is my belief that, starting with Vargas Llosa, they started giving the prize to candidates that won’t be likely to upset the white male dominant culture of criticism. Tranströmer was the one poet whose name was touted every year, as well as perennial nobel contender Mo Yan. The pattern of the new “sure that makes sense”-prize became most obvious last year when Alice Munro won. If they wanted to give it to a white, female, important, accomplished Canadian writer of short stories, why not give it to Mavis Gallant, who, in my opinion, is significantly better than the already excellent Munro. Before 2010, I have no doubt this would have been given to Gallant. But maybe the double whammy of Le Clèzio and Müller intimidated the academy into its present, boring, if not objectionable course.  I sincerely don’t want to think what the “sure, why not” option for 2014 could be. Philip Roth? Murakami? My heart weeps. Let’s just go on to my picks. 🙂

ONE  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. But factually, it’s probably not (was Churchill the last nonfiction winner?). So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most excellent/deserving. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but two years after Mo Yan’s win, that’s not going to happen. So my list of poets is headlined by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Additionally, his work in translating French poetry and writing on art is both accomplished, but also draws him out of what the academy perceives as American insularity. His work is personal and generous, smart and emotional, international and profoundly American. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis, whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. The third poet is Yves Bonnefoy, the most significant and important living French poet. Since I have only read his poetry (with great pleasure) and not studied it or his broader work, here is someone else’s excellent discussion of Bonnefoy. Moreover, Bonnefoy, like Ashbery, has been writing about art and produced fantastic translations (from English). So as we see, my first pick is actually three and could be longer (Jaccottet, the Swiss French genius would come to mind, maybe Zagajewsky). But I feel like there’s only room for one poet on a shortlist, for reasons that don’t apply to writers of novels who are often only perceived as “writers”.

TWO The same applies to nonfiction which has not had a winner in decades. So I will mention more than one here, #1 surely should be Umberto Eco. While he’s also a novelist, and perhaps more widely known as such, his work in the fringes of philosophy and in literary criticism and theory is significant, wide ranging and influential. I don’t think any other writer as important and accomplished and widely read in his field is still alive. What’s more, his work is fantastically well written, at least in English translation. Similar things apply to my other pick in this category, Hilary Putnam. I always thought Stanley Cavell should be considered, with his wide range from philosophy to literary and film criticism, but as long as Hilary Putnam is still around, a nonfiction Nobel that is not awarded to him or Eco would be upsetting, Putnam’s increasingly mystical examinations of reality and language are blindingly well written and incredibly influential, even among the many people disagreeing with him.

THREE The novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gikuyu and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, politcal and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions.

FOUR Now. I think Thomas Pynchon, together with William H. Gass and Joyce Carol Oates, is the best and most important and accomplished living American novelist. I think his work is unbelievably well written, brilliantly conceived and incredibly influential. His thinking is generous and humane, his work being engaged against epistemological and political violence. He has tackled and succeeded in writing a multitude of different kinds of books. There are very few significant contemporary writers whose work is not marked in one way or another by Pynchon. Now, at the same time, he said he wouldn’t accept the prize and I completely understand why this would keep the academy from giving him the prize. Nobody needs a Marlon Brando moment at the ceremony. That said, my pick for #4 is not Pynchon. I advocate a joint award for Pynchon and John Barth or even Pynchon, Barth and Robert Coover. It’s been a while since we had joint Nobel Prizes in Literature but it’s not unheard-of. John Barth, even more than Pynchon, is a profound and enduring influence not just on American literature post-1960, but on world literature. Young postmodern novelist, say, Austrian firebrand Clemens J. Setz, are unthinkable without Barth’s work that continued into the 1980s. While his work since then has been of much lesser impact, the academy has shown itself willing to award writers whose best work had been behind them for quite a while. The two mid-oughts awards for Lessing and Pinter are pretty clear evidence of that fact. Giving an award to Pynchon and Barth would be an overdue recognition of the excellence and importance of American early postmodernism. Well deserved.

FIVE So the fifth pick I am least sure. There are a couple of excellent/important writers who are too young to win it, among them Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu and Russian emigré novelist Mikhail Shishkin. Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. A writer I did read, Pierre Guyotat, is a much older writer I would not mind being recognized for his excellence and significance. But the recent death of Siegfried Lenz, who was more than deserving of the award, reminded me of the now best German living active novelist: Reinhard Jirgl. A disciple of Heiner Müller, Jirgl rose from being a mechanic and stage hand to winning German literature’s most prestigious award, the Büchner Preis. Jirgl’s work, originally prevented from being published in the GDR, initially was highly influenced by Müller, whose mixture of stark physicality, and strenuously literary, even stiff, language pervades Jirgl’s Genealogie des Tötens, a book that collects his earliest manuscripts that were prevented from being published in the GDR. Another influence on that book, and more, on his later work, is Arno Schmidt. In his later work, Jirgl interrogates impotence and the violence of social relationships and injustice. His language is literary and inventive, and as his work progresses, he increasingly changes and manipulates the limits of the form of the literary novel, by offering Cortázar-like shortcuts through the sequence of the novel (Abtrünnig) or by engaging with the genre of science fiction (Nichts von euch auf Erden). Quietly, he has become part of the intellectual, historical and moral conscience of Germany, a country increasingly unafraid (again) of waging war on others, and a country that is trying to exculpate itself from its awful early 20th century history. Jirgl has won almost every German prize imaginable but his powerful and gorgeously written work has not found recognition outside of Germany and France. Maybe it’s time.

“The condition that nourishes poetry”

Below, the fantastic conclusion of a fantastic very short essay by John Ashbery on Rimbaud’s Illuminations. The occasion? The publication of a new translation of that divine prose poem, by John Ashbery himself. Given that he might be the best American poet at work today, it’s hard not to recommend this work sight unseen.

We tend to forget that “modern poetry” is a venerable institution. Prose poetry (Rimbaud’s own term for what he was writing in Illuminations) had already been produced by Lautréamont and Baudelaire; Rimbaud mentioned to a friend the influence of the latter’s work in the genre. Free verse, today ubiquitous, was used by Rimbaud in two of the Illuminations. Yet, more essentially, absolute modernity was for him the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all of life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second. The self is obsolete: In Rimbaud’s famous formulation, “I is someone else” (“Je est un autre”). In the twentieth century, the coexisting, conflictingviews of objects that the Cubist painters cultivated, the equalizing deployment of all notes of the scale in serial music, and the unhierarchical progressions of bodies in motion in the ballets of Merce Cunningham are three examples among many of this fertile destabilization. Somewhere at the root of this, the crystalline jumble of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, like a disordered collection of magic lantern slides, each an “intense and rapid dream,” in his words, is still emitting pulses. If we are absolutely modern—and we are—it’s because Rimbaud commanded us to be.—ja

The chronic inattention / Of our lives

I love browsing the internet and finding songs or poems one knows but has almost forgotten, like this 1979 poem by John Ashbery.

John Ashbery: Late Echo

Alone with our madness and favorite flower
We see that there really is nothing left to write about.
Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things
In the same way, repeating the same things over and over
For love to continue and be gradually different.

Beehives and ants have to be re-examined eternally
And the color of the day put in
Hundreds of times and varied from summer to winter
For it to get slowed down to the pace of an authentic
Saraband and huddle there, alive and resting.

Only then can the chronic inattention
Of our lives drape itself around us, conciliatory
And with one eye on those long tan plush shadows
That speak so deeply into our unprepared knowledge
Of ourselves, the talking engines of our day.

Inventing Meaning

Unfortunately, I’m not very good at “explaining“ my work. I once tried to do this in a question-and-answer period with some students of my friend Richard Howard, after which he told me: “They wanted the key to your poetry, but you presented them with a new set of locks.” That sums up for me my feelings on the subject of “unlocking” my poetry. I’m unable to do so because I feel that my poetry is the explanation. The explanation of what? Of my poetry, whatever that is. As I see it, my thought is both poetry and the attempt to explain that poetry; the two cannot be disentangled. I know this isn’t going to satisfy anybody and will probably be taken as another form of arrogance from an off-putting poet. On occasions when I have tried to discuss the meanings of my poems, I have found that I was inventing plausible-sounding ones which I knew to be untrue. That does seem to me to be something like arrogance. In any case, as a poet who cares very much about having an audience, I’m sorry about the confusion I have involuntarily helped to cause; in the words of W.H. Auden, “If I could tell you, I would let you know.” I’m also mildly distressed at not being able to give a satisfactory account of my work because in certain moods this inability seems like a limit to my powers of invention. After all, if I can invent poetry, why can’t I invent the meaning?

from the first of 6 amazing Norton Lectures, held by John Ashbery, published in: Ashbery, John (2000), Other Traditions, Harvard University Press, a book which is highly recommended.