Monday, November 17, 2014

Noble Nobels and Otherwise

Suspended Sentences, by Patrick Modiano


It won't be much of a challenge if I ask you, dear talented reader, what this group has in common:
Claude Simon, Odysseus Elytis, Harry Matinson, Nelly Sachs, and Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill? Yes indeed, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for his "defense of exalted human values." Here's young Winston, back in 1898:  

"Thus ended the Battle of Omdurman [with an astonishing 90% casualty rate for the Dervish Army and a 2% casualty rate for the British]---the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians. Within the space of five hours the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a modern European Power had been destroyed and dispersed, with hardly any difficulty, comparatively small risk, and insignificant loss to the victors."

Let's just say that Churchill's record on the exaltation of human values was mixed, at best. Then again, Bertrand Russell, who may never have read a novel let alone written one, earned the prize for his History of Western Philosophy (whose take on Western Philosophy is itself suspect) in 1950, and Henri Bergson, whose fanciful ideas about being and time pale in comparison to the Nazi Heidegger's, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1927--perhaps the most mysterious Nobel in the years since Sully Prudhomme carried home the first Nobel in 1901. Remember Sully?

Along the quay the great ships,
Listing silently with the surge,
Pay no heed to the cradles
Rocked by women's hands.

But the day of parting will come,
For it is decreed that women shall weep,
And that men with questing spirits
Shall seek enticing horizons.

"Listing silently with the surge." Even in '01 this award was controversial, as were prizes given to Sartre, Toni Morrison, Grazia Deledda, and Sinclair Lewis, for varying reasons. Then again, who could quarrel with this extraordinary list of geniuses? Mann, Oe, Shaw, Faulkner, Yeats, Pirandello, Kawabata, Gide, Camus, Pasternak, Perse, Andric, Steinbeck, Sholokhov, Neruda, Boll, Bellow, Milosz, I.B. Singer, Kertesz, Coetzee, Llosa, Pamuk and the great Gabby Marquez? I haven't listed the many writers who have been recipients of the Nobel whose work I haven't read, usually for reasons of access (Darius Fo or Gao Xingjian for example), or writers whose work I frankly dislike (Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott [regrettably], or William Golding [apart from Lord of the Flies, which couldn't possibly have counted]).  On the other hand, Nabokov, Proust, James Joyce, and (arguably I suppose) Philip Roth never won; nor did Borges--go figure--or Chekhov, who died just two years after Theodor Mommsen won for his History of Rome. I adore Sinclair Lewis, or I did when I was fifteen, but a Nobel Prize? And Hemingway? T.S. Eliot? Heck, Eliot even admitted that Pound was the better writer, and Pound never won--and we can't say it was because he was a vicious anti-Semite, because Eliot was at least as vicious an anti-Semite, and Gunter Grass was in the SS for goodness sake, though he had the good taste to admit to having been a Nazi only after he took home the $1 million. And that's the thing: the Prize is a great honor--to stand on the same stage as Thomas Mann should humble any writer, but then there's the money, all that cool cash allowing one to do nothing more than write for the rest of one's life. Bliss!

 I was surprised  by this year's Nobel award--not because I'd never heard of Patrick Modiano since there are plenty of European writers I've never heard of--but because I expected this year's award to go to the great Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o, which would have pleased me immensely, or to the popular Japanese author Haruki Murakami, which would have been, frankly, a disappointment. While I like Murakami and don't hold his popularity against him (that much), he lacks "high seriousness," and if the Nobel has stood for anything, it's gravitas--though not a lack of humor (see Mo Yan's books). Amos Oz perhaps also deserves the Prize (I can't decide), but no way that will ever happen, but most of all I would have liked to see Milan Kundera honored, and hope his time will come soon. Has anyone ever written a novel like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, all things considered?

Anyway, I read Suspended Sentences this past week--three of Modiano's novellas--and I enjoyed them, but they didn't do what Mann or Kundera do--they didn't sweep me away into an entirely different world, one that is richer and more engaging than the one I'm currently occupying.  That said, the first story, which is autobiographical (and all of them are, though not Proustian, despite the reviewers' comparisons, which are inane), was quite excellent. I found his tale of the photographer Francis Jansen compelling and complex--a story about how we organize reality in order not to make sense of it but to make sense of ourselves. I know nothing about photography as an art form, though I enjoy looking at photographs by the masters (especially Dorothea Lange's Depression photos), but I was drawn into Jensen's world, into his abrogation of his art, his dismissal of his photos as trivial, but. at the same time, his compulsion to make them. The idea that touched me in this story was that of the artist who has no interest in the outward form of his art, whose "art" lies within, and is a form of self-fashioning rather than of making. This is a brilliant story, and I hope to read more of Modiano in French or English (not many of his books have been translated yet) and to be able to make a more informed judgment of his qualities as a writer. 

 George Ovitt (11/17/2014)

Suspended Sentences, trans. by Mark Polizzotti (a great translator from the French) is published by Yale University Press in its World Republic of Letters Series.

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