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Alfred Nobel and I

Don’t worry, I didn’t have a session with a spiritualist to chat with good old Freddy-boy (“Cheers for the dynamite, mate!”). I wasn’t awarded any prize, either, and probably will never be. Last but not least, physics, chemistry, and economics being complete terrae incognitae for me, I’m not going to talk about those fields nor their laureates, even though they are certainly very important and wise people—I’d make a total fool of me, I’m afraid. No, this is a post about the Nobel Prize in Literature, of course. I know I’m a teensy bit late to talk about this year’s laureate and would feel preposterous to discuss Annie Ernaux, anyway, as I’m not (yet) familiar with her work.

But I thought, why not have a look at the list of laureates, check which writers I know, and share my thoughts about them with you.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is an odd institution. Sometimes you get the impression it’s just the result of a bunch of Swedes playing darts with several names of World Literature pinned to a board. Criticism about the laureates abound. True enough, the list (check it out on Wikipedia) shows an ill-disguised eurocentrism with a heavy nod toward the USA and a polite glance at the rest of the world. Moreover, it’s doubtlessly an expression of male chauvinism (119 laureates in all, with only 17 of them women). But the prestige! The media buzz! The dough (870,000 euros if you please)!

The first Prize was awarded in 1901 to the French writer Sully Prudhomme. If you do the math, you’ll notice that 2022 – 1901 = 121; yet there are only 119 names on the list. In fact, the prize wasn’t awarded several times (1914, 1918, 1935, 1940-1943), but in 1966 and 1974 to two laureates. I guess that adds up in the end.

My list won’t be exhaustive, of course. I didn’t read all the books of all the 119 writers thus honoured, so if someone is not on my personal list (even though they’re world-famous, e.g. Frédéric Mistral or Rudyard Kipling), it’s not an oversight nor snobbism, just a question of not enough time versus too many books to read. I also realise while looking at the complete list that some of those I haven’t tackled yet should absolutely be on my TBR. 

Here we go. In chronological order. And yes, the very first ones (1901-1904) are not on my list.

1905—Henryk Sienkiewicz (Poland/Russian Empire)

Surprisingly, he’s the first author of the list that I’m familiar with. Who doesn’t know, at least by name, “Quo Vadis”? Ancient Rome, Nero, love story between a Christian woman and a heathen patrician. I admit I have no deep-rooted memories of the novel, but that means I don’t recall any negative things, either. I guess I should give it another read (in German, probably) one of these days.

1909—Selma Lagerlöf (Sweden)

When I was a kid, we had that cartoon show on TV called “Nils Holgersson,” based upon Lagerlöf’s novel “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.” I loved the show (and loved the book I read at the same age, too), and after my sister offered me my Kindle at Christmas a few years ago, I bought Lagerlöf’s complete works (in German). I don’t know when, but I’m sure I’ll get to reading at least Nils’s story again some day and hopefully check out more of Lagerlöf’s work, too. As I remember it, Nils is a perfect Christmas read for those who have kept a child’s spirit (my case).

1912—Gerhart Hauptmann (Germany)

Did I read Hauptmann’s best-known naturalist play “Die Weber” (“The Weavers”) in school or not? I couldn’t say. I guess so as Hauptmann is pretty much compulsory reading in German-speaking countries. If I read anything, it hasn’t left much of an impression, I’m afraid (shame on me).

1925—George Bernard Shaw (United Kingdom, Ireland)

Of course. And, alas, another writer the work of which hasn’t left much of an impression. But I’m pretty sure we studied his play “Saint Joan”. As we also did Friedrich Schiller’s “Die Jungfrau von Orleans” (pretty intense and modern) as well as Brecht’s “Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe” (I remember that one as “yawn”), it’s not surprising Shaw’s take on the same subject was pushed to the background of my mind. I should probably check out more of his plays, even though reading plays is always less thrilling than seeing them on stage.

1929—Thomas Mann (Germany)

I admit, I had kind of a literary crush on Mann in my teenage years, reading loads of his novels (in German) while at school. Voluntarily, too. I’ve always loved “Buddenbrooks,” which I wholeheartedly recommend, found “Lotte in Weimar” quite boring, oddly liked “Der Zauberberg” (“The Magic Mountain”), and was puzzled by “Doctor Faustus.” Btw, “Der Erwählte” (“The Holy Sinner”) is almost unreadable in German (I managed to get through, don’t ask me how), and the tetralogy “Joseph und seine Brüder” (“Joseph and His Brothers”) must be amongst the dullest series of books I’ve ever read. One of the few Mann books I never finished. I’ve also read quite a lot of Mann’s short stories—er, am I allowed to admit I’ve never understood the hype around “Death in Venice”? Not my favourite… But Mann should be on anybody’s TBR, in my humble opinion.

1936—Eugene O’Neill (USA)

If I had to name my favourite playwright, I’d probably come up with him even though I only know one of his plays (“Long Day’s Journey Into Night”) and only read it. But I did so a good dozen times over the years. It’s amongst the most powerful, most touching pieces of writing I’ve ever come across, and it never fails to move me to tears—the ineluctability of the tragedies happening in it, the helplessness of the characters, the glimmer of hope so heart-wrenchingly crushed…

1946—Hermann Hesse (Germany)

Ah, Hesse. Which German-speaking youngster who loves reading hasn’t dug into Hesse? “Siddhartha,” “Der Steppenwolf,” “Narziss und Goldmund” (“Narcissus and Goldmund”), and above all my favourite, “Das Glasperlenspiel” (“The Glass Bead Game”). This latter is a genuine gem. Hesse—a must-read, and if you can, read his work in German!

1947—André Gide (France)

Argh, I only read “Les faux-monnayeurs” (“The Counterfeiters”; loved it, by the way), and wanted to read much more ever since. Definitely on my TBR.

1954—Ernest Hemingway (USA)

“The Old Man and The Sea,” naturally. Not my cup of tea, even though I recognise the man was a wonderful writer. It’s the topic that doesn’t do anything for me. But I’ll make sure I’ll reread it when I get older. And I know I should check out his novels.

1957—Albert Camus (France)

Again, someone I discovered at school and immediately fell in love with. Not “L’Étranger” (“The Stranger”) but rather “La Peste” (“The Plague”). Strong writing.

1964—Jean-Paul Sartre (France)

“La Nausée” (“Nausea”), “Le Mur” (“The Wall”), “Les Mouches” (“The Flies”), and probably many more. I loved the sometimes bleak Sartrian concepts and still quote some of them nowadays (“Hell is other people”), but always found him less a humanist and an optimist than Camus. Nonetheless a writer who deserves to be checked out.

1969—Samuel Beckett (Ireland)

Right behind Eugene O’Neill in my “favourite playwrights”-list. “Waiting for Godot”? A masterpiece, and I had the chance to see it performed twice in my life. Both times awesome experiences. The whole play seems to be so nonsensical, but when you dig deeper, it contains loads of levels and different meanings.

1972—Heinrich Böll (Germany)

I think I read all his books. I’m not joking—when I was a teenager, they had an extensive collection of Böll-books in my local library, and I read them all. I wouldn’t even know which one to recommend, so I’ll recommend his entire bibliography. Like, urgently.

1981—Elias Canetti (United Kingdom, Bulgaria)

I almost didn’t add him before I realised I did read two of his books, “Die Stimmen von Marrakesch” (“The Voices of Marrakesh”) and “Masse und Macht” (“Crowds and Power”). The latter, a study, didn’t catch my attention, but the former is a gem. Very evocative writing about a city I simply adore.

1982—Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia)

Ah, probably my favourite writer ever. “Cien años de soledad” (“One Hundred Years of Solitude”) alone would make him an outstanding author. Add “La mala hora” (“In Evil Hour”), “El otoño del patriarca” (“The Autumn of the Patriarch”), “El general en su laberinto” (“The General in His Labyrinth”), and “El amor en los tiempos del cólera” (“Love in the Time of Cholera”), and you get why I love him so much. Or you don’t get it—there are a lot of people his writing doesn’t touch. If possible, read it in Spanish.

1983—William Golding (United Kingdom)

“Lord of the Flies”—duh. Compulsory school read back in my day, and one that almost traumatized me. I’m not sure I’ll be able to stomach rereading it (which means it left a huge impression on me, and despite its bleakness, a hugely positive one).

1988—Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt)

I bought his “Cairo Trilogy” at the airport of Luxor before flying home from my Nile cruise back in 2018 (or was it 2017?). And I regretted not speaking Arabic because the translation didn’t get me hooked. DNF, alas, but I’ll give it another try one day.

1989—Camilo José Cela (Spain)

My Spanish professor at uni recommended the book, and ever being the optimist, I bought it back then… in Spanish. Not my most brilliant idea because, er, I didn’t get very far. I need to find a neat translation (maybe in French as it’s closer to Spanish than German or English) because I found the narrative intriguing (that is, the bits I did understand…).

1998—José Saramago (Portugal)

OMG. My sister recommended his novel “Blindness,” and it left a huge impression on me. That book is a must-read. Powerful.

1999—Günter Grass (Germany)

“Die Blechtrommel” (“The Tin Drum”), Grass’s best-known novel, is an amazing read. Dark, gripping, somewhat naughty. Totally recommended. I must have read several other books by this author, but they didn’t impress me as much.

2004—Elfriede Jelinek (Austria)

A very strange writer, not really loved in her country (in my country, I should say), but nothing short of amazing. “Die Klavierspielerin” (“The Piano Player”) is one of her books I most vividly remember. Very disturbing, but what a ride!

2006—Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)

I bought “Cevdet Bey and His Sons” in the German translation some years back, but couldn’t finish it. It’s a family saga (a trope I normally love), but somehow I didn’t manage to really “get into” the plot.

2016—Bob Dylan (USA)

Well, who doesn’t know Bob? Now shoot me, but I’m not a huge fan and still don’t understand why he was awarded the prize. Make a songwriter laureate? Why not, but in that case, I would’ve preferred Leonard Cohen, for instance, or Paolo Conte.

2019—Peter Handke (Austria)

I’m sure I read at least one of his books, namely “Wunschloses Unglück” (A Sorrow Beyond Dreams”), but would be incapable of telling you a single thing about it.

That’s it? Ouch, that’s it

Here we are then. 24 out of 119 writers. I don’t know if that’s a good score or a poor one (the latter, I suppose). There are plenty of writers among the 95 remaining that I’d like to discover, especially this year’s laureate, Annie Ernaux, whose work strikes me as genuinely deserving. I read some excerpts, and they got me very intrigued.

So, what are your thoughts on the Nobel Prize? How many writers from the list do you know because you have (extensively | a bit | reluctantly) explored their works? What are your favourites on the list? I’d be very interested in getting your opinions, recommendations, etc. Maybe you’d like to write a short comment on Facebook? My TBR is huuuuuge, so a few more books won’t make a difference 🙂 And we’re talking Nobel Prize laureates here, after all.

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