No­bel judges, lit­er­a­ture and the bleak abyss be­tween them

Dayton Daily News - - IDEAS & VOICES - By Gar­ri­son Keil­lor Gar­ri­son Keil­lor writes for The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Mil­lions of peo­ple around the world un­der­stand the con­cept of read­ing books for plea­sure but the Swedes think of it as a form of colonoscopy.

I am off lin­gonber­ries for the time be­ing and Volvos and flat white fur­ni­ture from Ikea. No meat­balls, thank you. Once again the hu­mor­less Swedes have cho­sen a writer of mi­graines for the No­bel Prize in lit­er­a­ture, an au­thor of twi­light med­i­ta­tions on time and mem­ory and mor­tal­ity and cold toast by lon­ers look­ing at bad wall­pa­per. It’s not a prize for lit­er­a­ture, it’s a prize for ni­hilism. The Swedes said he’s like Jane Austen com­bined with Kafka with some of Proust, three other writ­ers you’d never in­vite to a party. Well, at least they didn’t give it to Joni Mitchell.

That Swedes give out the No­bel is like the Swiss de­cid­ing the Cy Young Award. We’re talk­ing tonedeaf, peo­ple. The words “Swedish” and “com­edy” sel­dom ap­pear in the same sen­tence ex­cept as a joke. All the Swedes with a sense of hu­mor came to Amer­ica and so what the No­bel judges rec­og­nize is bleak, cramped, emo­tion­ally stunted, enig­matic, pre­ten­tious. Mil­lions of peo­ple around the world un­der­stand the con­cept of read­ing books for plea­sure but the Swedes think of it as a form of colonoscopy. If they gave a No­bel Prize for food, they’d give it to quinoa. Of course all the book crit­ics ap­plauded the choice of Kazuo Ishig­uro: Prais­ing the dull and deadly is a time-tested way to demon­strate in­tel­lec­tual su­pe­ri­or­ity. It’s like tak­ing a ski va­ca­tion in North Dakota: It sets you apart from the crowd. And com­edy is so ut­terly ado­les­cent.

No, if you want to write a No­bel Prize-win­ning book, start with this para­graph:

“He did not know where he was. It was mid­night and the train seemed to be mov­ing, he couldn’t be sure. There were voices nearby, or maybe he was only imag­in­ing them. He could smell cre­osote. He knew cre­osote from his years in Al­bert­bad. He had been shipped there for crimes against the Direc­torate and had spent years driv­ing truck­loads of cre­osote to the canyon and dump­ing them in. Ever since then, his tea had tasted of cre­osote, his eggs, his morn­ing muf­fin.”

Do not — I re­peat, Do Not — be­gin with a para­graph like this:

“She sat at the ta­ble in the far corner of the café, wait­ing for him, and flashed a bril­liant smile as he ap­proached. He no­ticed the bal­loon on the cush­ion of the chair op­po­site her. A large semi-in­flated or­ange bal­loon. Her eyes glit­tered, she was de­lighted to see him, and sud­denly he knew what he needed to do. He pre­tended not to no­tice the bal­loon. He walked to the chair, took her pale hand and kissed it, sat down firmly and from be­neath came a loud bubbly flut­tery ex­cla­ma­tion of flat­u­lence, and from her came peals of laugh­ter, like bells on Christ­mas morn­ing. And that was where it all be­gan. From that de­ci­sion to sit on it.”

Mean­while, it is a beau­ti­ful Oc­to­ber day and I’m sit­ting in the kitchen, en­joy­ing a hearty licorice tea and look­ing at my lovely wife. I don’t re­call any­one do­ing any­thing like that in Mr. Ishig­uro’s books. As the No­bel com­mit­tee said, he “has un­cov­ered the abyss be­neath our il­lu­sory sense of con­nec­tion with the world.” Beauty is an il­lu­sion, as are licorice tea and mar­riage and, of course, the kitchen, which sits on the edge of a cliff look­ing down at noth­ing­ness 100 miles deep.

The man who should have won the prize goes by the name Philip Roth and what dis­qual­i­fies him are the many rich de­scrip­tive pas­sages re­veal­ing a love of the phys­i­cal world and the el­e­ments of sto­ry­telling such as con­ver­sa­tion, some of which is, since the speak­ers are Amer­i­can, way too funny, way too con­nected to the world.

In their long-stand­ing cam­paign against com­edy, the Swedish Academy is do­ing al­most as much dam­age as old man No­bel did with his hard work de­vel­op­ing bet­ter rock­ets, can­non, and ex­plo­sives. They are lead­ing young writ­ers to as­pire to vacu­ity. I say, let the Swedes give the prize for ur­ban plan­ning. Let the Jews give the No­bel Prize. They know from lit­er­a­ture. Com­pare a list of great Jewish writ­ers and a list of great Swedish writ­ers. I rest my case. Swedish lit­er­a­ture is made up of small dark sto­ries in which peo­ple are very silent and then it starts snow­ing and a dog barks and some­one reaches for the aqua­vit.

Poor Ishig­uro. A week ago he was a writer strug­gling to put him­self on pa­per and now he’s be­come a gran­ite statue in the park, pi­geons sit­ting on his shoul­ders. Write some­thing funny, Ish. As­ton­ish us. Go to the No­bel ban­quet in Stock­holm in De­cem­ber and sit down on the bal­loon.

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