The week in books
Nobel odds and oddities
Kazuo Ishiguro was a surprise choice as 2017 Nobel literature prize winner, but only because his odds were 50/1plus; given the dominance in its lineup of laureates of one sex, continent and literary form, he is thoroughly in keeping with tradition. Only five of the 18 winners between 2000 and 2017, for instance, have been women, while 12 of those laureates have been European. No fewer than 14 have been novelists or short story writers, with two playwrights, a poet, a songwriter and a historian making up the rest.
When Sara Danius took over the top job at the Swedish Academy, the awarding body, in mid-2015, she inherited a roll of honour with glaring imbalances in region, race, gender and literary genre, suggesting systemic bias towards Europe, white male authors and the novel. It was expected that the new broom’s panel would swiftly signal intent (and guilt) by picking authors who were far away from Sweden, probably not wedded to prose, and that there would be more women and the 22-year-long apparent ban on US winners lifted.
A woman and an American were indeed Danius’s panel’s picks in 2015 and 2016 respectively, but more striking were the genres they worked in: not the usual underrepresented ones, but non-fiction (Svetlana Alexievich) and pop lyrics (Bob Dylan). Whatever the merits of selecting them, anointing a white European and a white north American did nothing to rectify the other long-standing imbalances – in fact they look a little worse, as “years since” figures have increased. As a male European (if Japan-born) novelist, Ishiguro is even closer to the norm.
Selecting him (and not the favourite, Ngugi wa Thiong’o) means there has been no African winner since 2003, and that was South Africa’s JM Coetzee; it’s now 31 years since the last black African winner, Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka in 1986. The Arab world’s most recent representative, Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, came two years later in 1988. The same period of reduced white bias and greater internationalism also saw back-to back wins for Derek Walcott and Toni Morrison (below) in 1992 and 1993. Two together, and then nothing for 24 years: Morrison is still the last black winner from any country.
South Asian authors also have strong grounds for feeling aggrieved: Japan and China have had their successes, and Nobel selections have recognised both the Latin American “boom” and the simultaneous vitality of African writing (post-independence or midapartheid). But the subsequent “empire strikes back” flourishing of postcolonial fiction in the subcontinent has been entirely ignored – so that Rabindranath Tagore (1913) stunningly remains the last and only Indian laureate. Merkel’s noise about Barnes While our own prime minister might need to take solace in a good book, Germany's Angela Merkel is loving literature. Poised to open next week’s Frankfurt book fair, she was also interviewed at an event hosted by the German newspaper Handelsblatt recently, and asked which book has stuck with her. Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, she replied: “I’ve read a book on Shostakovich, by Julian Barnes, about a performance of [Shostakovich’s opera] Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which I attended a while ago in Salzburg. The book wasn’t particularly long, so I immersed myself in it for two days ... What appealed to me most about it was it allowed you to get to know the environment in which Shostakovich’s music was created. It also harked back to a conflict I frequently encountered myself when I was young.
“Shostakovich lived through different phases of the Soviet Union’s cultural policy and was faced with that question: ‘How honest, how open are you?’ His work had been banned, he wasn’t allowed to have it shown anywhere, he was deprived of his means of expression, effectively. For these very reasons, I had decided pretty early on to become a physicist, because the GDR couldn’t possibly mess with physics. But as a musician, as a composer, your music might get classed as un-cultural [‘ unkulturell’] and be ostracised. People like this not only couldn’t express themselves freely, but they also had to fear for their lives. Questions such as ‘How honest can I afford to be?’, ‘How strong am I?’, ‘When do I give in?’, ‘What am I ready to compromise on?’ – those are questions Shostakovich was faced with a lot. And reading about a life like that made me realise once again what a blessing it is to live in a free country.”