Nobel Prize 2016: My picks.

Since I pick wrong every year, I tend to re-post versions of my old picks. There’s a difference this year. I have insisted every year on a nonfiction award (my picks were usually Umberto Eco and Hilary Putnam, both of whom died since last year’s award), and last year, finally, the quite excellent Svetlana Alexievich won a nonfiction award after a decades-long drought. I have read little of her work, my favorite is a book on suicide, Зачарованные смертью, literally “enchanted with death.” A writer who observes a society enchanted with death, with pain, a society frayed from the pressures of decaying or rotten ideologies. A well deserved award, even if the subsequent deaths of my usual picks did make me regret the missed opportunity, so to say, of giving the award to one of those two.

The feeling of a missed opportunity for an award for the same demographic has been a problem, I feel, for this last group of winners. I probably said this before, but 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 Munro. Apart from Munro, the award, long criticized for having too many Europeans, has turned, almost defiantly, more European than at any period since the 1970s. For all the talk about not awarding American literature for its insularity – Patrick Modiano is an incredibly insular writer. He draws mostly in French tradition, works within French literary culture, uses French forms and structures. 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. 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  Michel Tournier, whose worst work arguably outstrips Modiano’s best? Or Michel Butor? Or if French language, why not Assia Djebar? Djebar, Bonnefoy, Tournier and Butor have all died since Modiano won, all of them with more international resonance and importance, more part of international literary culture and conversations. Not to mention that all four of them are significantly more excellent as writers.

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 95 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? There is an odd sense, and Alexievich’s well deserved award compounds it, that the academy is looking only at European discussions of literature, weighing everything according to the small literary atmosphere on this continent. This strange, blind bias mars my joy about Alexievich’s award. 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. There are three groups of picks: Poetry, International Fiction and European Fiction, in this order.

ONE: Poetry  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, plus a European option. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but with an Academy that prefers European mediocrity over Asian excellence, that’s not going to happen. My list of poets tends to be headlined every year 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. Another good option, given the circumstances outlined in my introduction, would be the excellent Yusef Komunyakaa. However, if an American poet makes the cut, I would vote, much as last year, 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 Kim Hyesoon. I have read her work in Don Mee Choi’s spectacular English translation, but I don’t read Korean, and can’t really discuss her. I find her poetry of the body, femininity and the frayed modernity intriguing and interesting, but there’s no way I can adequately discuss her. Violence, accuracy, beauty, it’s all there in her work. I have a half-written essay on Hyesoon and Tracy Smith that I am tempted to submit somewhere (interest?). Finally, If they decline to award someone outside of Europe, I can see an award for Tua Forsström being interesting, although I suppose her work isn’t big enough. You can read some of her poems in David McDuff’s translation here. McDuff, by the way, has a blog that you should consider reading if you’re interested in translation and/or Nordic literature.

TWO: International Fiction 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, political 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.

THREE: European Fiction So the third pick I am least sure. If a white/European novelist were to win it, after all, who would I be least upset about? 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, immensely 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. Knausgaard, maybe, who has had an extended moment in literary circles? But another dark European writer of memory and language? It would make the scope of the Nobel prize even more narrow than it already is. The enigmatic Elena Ferrante is an option, despite the slimness of her work, but her anonymous nature may keep the academy from awarding her. Scuttlebutt has it that Pynchon’s faceless authorship is what kept one of last century’s best novelists from winning the award. Mircea Cărtărescu is maybe still a bit too young, and his oeuvre is too uneven. His massive new novel may turn the tide, but it hasn’t been translated yet into Swedish, English or French. There are three German language options in my opinion, but the two headliners of Peter Handke and Reinhard Jirgl are both politically dubious. So let me pick two books, no excuses. One is the third of the German options, Marcel Beyer. In a time when right wing politicians and parties are sweeping Europe, Beyer’s clear and sharp sense of history, writing from the country that has brought catastrophe to Europe twice in one century, is very welcome and important. His fiction is infused with a passionate reckoning with the wayward forces of history, a work struggling with the complexities of knowledge and narrative. On top of that, he has developed a style that is always clear yet powerful. No two novels of his are truly alike except in the most broad of parameters and his poetry is still different. German literary fiction about German history, when it’s not written by Jirgl, is often either clichéd (Erpenbeck), sentimental (Tellkamp) or dour (Ruge). There’s really no writer like Marcel Beyer in this country, and that’s been true and obvious for a long time. His work is widely translated. And then 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.  His work is so unique, so incredibly excellent, such a pinnacle of literary achievement that it transcends any representational caveats.

Other picks & speculation in The Birdcage.

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Marcel Beyer wins award

büchnerMarcel Beyer, one of Germany’s 5 best poets, one of Germany’s 5 best novelists and a damn good nonfiction writer, has just won the Büchnerpreis, Germany’s most prestigious lifetime achievement award. I mean he should have won it a decade ago, especially if you look at some past winners (Arnold Stadler, Sibylle Lewitscharoff, FC Delius and Martin Mosebach all number among past winners of the award), but this is well deserved to say the least. All of his fiction has been translated into English, and it is uniformly excellent. I’ll try to have something new on him up one of these days but in the meantime, I’m a bit perturbed that the only thing on my blog I can link to is my very bad review of his very good novel Kaltenburg. I feel it should be mentioned again for readers who only know his novels that Beyer has always written poetry as well as fiction and he is one of the very very few writers who excel at both. I have read (despite not owning) his last collection multiple times and the constant excellence of Beyer’s writing through the years that never flagged, never got bad or complacent, is just stunning. His fiction is infused with a passionate reckoning with the wayward forces of history, a work struggling with the complexities of knowledge and narrative. On top of that, he has developed a style that is always clear yet powerful. No two novels of his are truly alike except in the most broad of parameters and his poetry is still different. German literary fiction about German history, when it’s not written by Jirgl, is often either clichéd (Erpenbeck), sentimental (Tellkamp) or dour (Ruge). There’s really no writer like Marcel Beyer in this country, and that’s been true and obvious for a long time. This recognition by the German Academy for Language and Literature is long overdue.

Marcel Beyer: Kaltenburg

Beyer, Marcel (2008), Kaltenburg, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-41920-5

Educational books have always been popular, and there are different varieties of these kinds of texts. There are books, for example from which you learn things, although not always correct things. Most historical novels are written that way, Michael Crichton (whose name, my paperback of Jurassic Park informs me, “rhymes with frighten”) built himself a career out of this, so has the diligently dull (or dully diligent?) Richard Powers etc. These books hand you a large amount of information (not always correct (I’m looking at you, Michael)) that you may not have come by otherwise. Then there are books that concentrate upon being insightful, making you see knowledge in a different way. There are vastly more of those around, because that group contains both novels that rely upon the reader’s knowledge of a topic and those from which you learn things). Marcel Beyer’s latest novel, Kaltenburg, longlisted for last year’s Deutscher Buchpreis, is a strange fellow in that it is both a book that imparts knowledge to its readers, in a rather exotic area of expertise; it is also insightful, but in a completely different area. Beyer’s trick here, basically, is to talk about one topic but hinting at another that may or may not be connected with the first thing, and the longer the novel goes on, the clearer the reader sees the underlying theme, until, at the end, he’s completely caught up in Beyer’s ruminations and thinking. This is a masterful novel, by a great writer. Kaltenburg is easily the best contemporary German novel I have read in years (and I gather you remember me swooning over Trojanow’s work), by a writer who is completely and utterly in control of his craft.

Kaltenburg is narrated by an elderly ornithologist named Hermann Funk, a retired professor, who is living in Dresden. One day he is visited by a translator who asks him for advice and information. She is preparing for a conference and wants to learn ornithologist terms both in English and in German. We don’t know how she came up with Funk’s name, or why he agreed to do it; as a retired professor he certainly didn’t need any money. As we enter the book, their discussion has been underway for a while, we’re basically catching up. The whole novel is written from a first person perspective, except when Funk tells us about events that he hasn’t witnessed himself. He then launches into a seeming third person narrative, but it is still his voice we’re hearing, although it may not always be transparently so. The structure of the narrative is highly complex, Beyer constantly shifts gears. Sometimes it’s a plain q & a dialogue between Funk and the woman, sometimes Funk digresses and talks for a while. It’s important to note that, even in the middle of what may seem like a conventional narrative, small asides tell us that we are still in the interview, especially when he steps aside to let the translator ask a question, and yes, it’s a stepping aside; sometimes her questions can only be inferred through odd remarks and phrases, sometimes we don’t get any hints, but the nature of such a dialogue suggests that things have been left out. These comments of mine may sound extraneous but much of this novel is concerned with gazes and domination and I consider it a brilliant idea of Beyer’s to reproduce several of his ideas on, let’s call it: a formal level, as well.

Funk’s monologues are highly associative, partly modeled upon the example of Proust’s memoire involontaire. From birds he segues into personal anecdotes with birds and then, more and more, into reminiscences of his life as a student and companion of Ludwig Kaltenburg, the world famous ethologist, ornithologist and zoologist. It is in one of those reminiscences that we enter the discussion, quickly learning the basic historical parameters of the novel. Funk and his parents had lived in Posen (then Germany, after WWII Poland) at the same time that Kaltenburg, a Vienna native, had. Funk’s parents had encouraged his early love for animals in general and birds in special, putting him into contact with two students of Kaltenburg’s (who, at the same time, were soldiers in the Wehrmacht), one who went on to become a famous artist and one who went on to become a famous documentary filmmaker. Early we learn that an event unknown to young Hermann had sundered Hermann’s parents and Kaltenburg who used to be a regular visitor to the Funk household. As the war drew to a close, both the Funks and Kaltenburg moved to Dresden. In the Dresden firebombings in February 1945, Funk’s parents died. The account of the disastrous night is the single most moving part of the book (many reviewers have been put off by the fact that much of the book does not go down the same sentimental road, but the mechanism of the novel makes this necessary (more on this in a minute)). We then loosely, by no means strictly chronologically, rather in leaps and bounds and rebounds, follow Kaltenburg’s career.

That career takes up again at the University of Leipzig (near Dresden) where he took a chair shortly after the war until, in the 1970s, Kaltenburg left the GDR for West Germany where he published books that made his international fame, books that left his academic turf and contrived to make general statements about human behavior. At this point, the account of Kaltenburg’s career ends, the novel returns to the present and leaves Funk and the translator to wrap things up. Although this is not quite correct: actually, the book is preceded by a prologue of sorts that starts with the end of Kaltenburg’s life, with him missing the birds he left behind when he moved to West Germany, with the controversy that erupted over his most famous books. So, even before we enter the narrative proper, Beyer tells us where we’ll end up and takes thus any direct suspense out of the book, only to replace it by a tension of sorts. The book works like a mystery without any murder, but we the readers still want to understand how things are connected, how the controversy about his late books ties in with the rather harmless and slow assemblage of anecdotes about his time in Dresden; additional suspense is derived from the constant hints at what happened in Posen and from the dark undercurrent below the light banter about birds. If, unlike me, you have a working memory, you may learn quite a bit about birds, ornithology and related areas. A huge part of the book appears to have no other purpose than to lecture you about different domestic birds, bird classifications and how to behave in the company of birds. To read these parts in that way only, perhaps with a few additional thoughts about the hints to Funk’s personal history and past events in Posen, would be a gross mistake, however.

We not only learn about birds, but rather, as I said, about bird classifications and related issues. We learn about the scientific gaze, about the workings of a scientific mind, about his work with living specimen, all these aspects are not simply explained to us, but shown, and repeated time and again. Beyer works hard to make us understand the parameters of this thinking, only to deliver a punch to the guts at the end by showing the consequences of applying such a thinking to humans. There are many atheists I know who think not believing in God is a “daring” (that word is so prolific among a certain segment of reactionary atheists that it starts to lose meaning) gesture that constitutes an ethics all of itself in a way. It doesn’t. What Adorno called the instrumentelle Vernunft has shown its dirty mug during the Third Reich but it has not been invented by Nazis, it and its destructive, anti-human thrust is inherent in much scientific thought before and after that. To anatomize a human being, to subject it to a normed and implicitly contemptuous gaze, that is always problematic, this we know, and it is one of the major points of Kaltenburg. It is a frequent mistake of books that grapple with the Third Reich and its heritage for post-war Germany (including hundreds of thousands of Nazis at universities, in the courts and in political parties) to achieve their effects through making their readers feel guilty. This is not at all how Kaltenburg works, it does not slam sad images of the Shoah etc at its readers at all. It wants its readers to understand, not to weep.

Understand who it is, among others, that was killed in the Dresden firebombings, understand, also, the continuities in German culture, understand what, in seemingly innocuous thinking, is problematic and what kind of thinking could lead to which results. None of this is obvious and none of this is hammered into its readers. It assumes that its readers are well read in German history, cultural and political. I know a surprising amount of people, Germans and British especially, who run their mouth about German history without having read or understood even a modicum of what Beyer presupposes in his book. You need not bone up on German history in order to read this book; I do recommend, however, to look up all the historical names and references that are dropped in the book. Wiki the cities and the names and you’ll be fine, but I do recommend this. As for other things: some readers will see (the introductory section about Kaltenburg’s late career does hint at this quite directly), some won’t, that the character of Ludwig Kaltenburg is a thinly veiled depiction of Konrad Lorenz. The artist mentioned above has his real counterpart in the legendary artist Joseph Beuys and the documentary filmmaker has his in Heinz Sielmann. Konrad Lorenz’s actual career is dissimilar in a few aspects but Beyer, instead of concentrating on the continuities of the Third Reich in West Germany which are all too obvious, he depicts those in the GDR (not absolving West Germany, on the contrary).

Of necessity this review contains only a rough account of the riches of Kaltenburg. There are many aspects, as the opposition of art and barbarism, the role of Proust’s suite of novels, the behavior of birds and the petty everyday murder of them. Much of this would fit in the overall reading of the book I have suggested, some would not. Marcel Beyer has written a multi-layered book that is unlike any other novel I have ever read. His nuanced approach to the topic that contains a harsh, unmitigated indictment without resorting to guilt and shock, the incredibly complex construction of his narrative, it’s really beyond words. It’s really a joke that he did not make the shortlist of the Deutscher Buchpreis, but a veritable hack like Ingo Schulze did. Beyer’s novel should win every prize available.

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