Under my byline

Nobel words

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 14 October 2008


“Writing for me is like travelling,” says this year’s Nobel literature laureate, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. He lives in at least three parts of the world — New Mexico, Nice and Mauritius (the home of his paternal ancestors) — and benefited from a peripatetic youth, divided between France, Nigeria, Thailand, England and America. He spent a few years with the forest-dwelling Emberas Indians of Panama, and is an expert on Amerindian culture. So it should come as no surprise that his writing is about thresholds and encounters, between cultures, between childhood and adulthood, between past, present and future. He opens one book, The Mexican Dream, looking over the shoulder (as it were) of Bernal Díaz, the conquistador-chronicler, at the first meeting of Spaniard and Amerindian, where two dreams collide: the Spaniards’ dream of gold, and the Indians’ of a myth fulfilled.

Literature this may be, but it also harbours a strong political critique, one which has intensified in Le Clézio’s writing since the 1970s. The “rationalist” West, he says, is devaluing nature and traditional cultures, and this is dangerous to us all. Therefore, when he stands up to deliver his Nobel lecture in December, expect him to make a forceful and timely statement about globalisation, cultural impoverishment and the deadening insulation of modern technology.

The Nobel literature lecture has from its inception been a blunt political tool, thrust into the hands of the solitary craftsman. In part this is because the Nobel century (the first prize was awarded in 1901) is so deeply stained with conflict. That conflict often provided the material which the laureates spun into literature. Also, each laureate has had some debt to redeem — whether it be to a group whose collective enterprise, intellectual or political, has shaped him; to his people long suppressed; to his nation that has long believed itself ignored and belittled… This is one reason why Trinidadians hailed the prize for themselves in 2001, even though V S Naipaul had been so critical of the country of his birth.

When he stands up to lecture, then, a laureate is more than himself, less than autonomous, more than an artist. It is a rare laureate who speaks mainly of himself or his work. Receiving his prize in 1905, Lithuanian-born Polish laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz said, heartbreakingly, “It has been said that Poland is dead, exhausted, enslaved, but here is the proof of her life and triumph.” What happened to Poland afterwards is well known. The French novelist Anatole France, after his speech of thanks in 1921, in which he said “The most horrible of wars has been followed by a peace treaty that is not a treaty of peace but a continuation of war,” went over and shook hands with the German chemistry laureate — and the audience applauded this rapprochement between the nations.

And in 1946, in the aftermath of another war, Swiss laureate Hermann Hesse condemned its Nazi authors: “I hate the grands simplificateurs, and I love the sense of quality, of inimitable craftsmanship and uniqueness.” That statement is as true of fundamentalists of all kinds today as it was then; and, since the mid-century, although many laureates speak of contemporary events, their words could as much apply to our world today.

William Faulkner said in 1949, after Hiroshima-Nagasaki: “There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?” Albert Camus asked in 1957, after the Soviets crushed Hungary, “[W]ith what feelings could he accept this honour at a time when other writers… are condemned to silence?” Octavio Paz wondered in 1990: “What will arise from the collapse of ideology? Is this the dawn of an era of universal concord and freedom for all or will there be a resurgence of tribal idolatry and religious fanaticism, unleashing discord and tyranny?”

Now that the media and public voices have proliferated and we are surrounded and bombarded by a great deal of language ill-used, recent laureates like Toni Morrison (1993) and Doris Lessing (2007) have called for a necessary distancing of the writer from the clamour and distractions of the world and its purposes. “We must live fully in order to secrete the substance of our work, but we have to work alone,” said Nadine Gordimer in 1991. One’s beliefs must be earned, after all, and when they are delivered in the full blaze of Nobel glory and with the weight of unfolding history behind them, we must have a reason to trust the author of the words.

(This is the first of a small number of weekly books columns I shall be writing for the BS edit page.)


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