In Which The Nobel Prize for Literature Is A Joke Among European Blowhards

Book by Its Cover

by Jeff Goldberg

“The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature… That ignorance is restraining.” – Horace Engdahl

If you’re interested in literature on a global level or even just an American one you’ve probably consumed a hundred bemused articles and angry blog posts about the above statements made by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, just a few days before Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio took the award.

Le Clézio looking smug

Now, I’ll admit, I haven’t read Le Clézio, which either proves Engdahl’s point about American’s not participating in the global dialogue or, just possibly, means the prize went to someone unknown and/or unworthy.  On second thought, even though a brief glance at wikipedia shows that Le Clézio has a long, varied, and lauded career as an author, it still doesn’t prove Engdahl’s point, because since when do I stand in for all Americans?  You see, it doesn’t matter if 99.9% of Americans are isolated and insular, because 99.9% of people don’t win the Nobel prize.  The point of the Nobel isn’t to award a country, but, rather, an individual author.

Let’s look at Engdahl’s other big claim: “There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world … not the United States.”

What I find cute about this is how he’s thinks Sweden is part of Europe.  I mean, sure, physically it’s there.  But, really?  Sweden?  It’s like my seven year-old nephew putting on his big boy pants and asking to hang out with me and my friends.  Sure, we love to have him around because he’s so adorable and innocent, but we all know he’s been harboring tons of Nazi loot stolen from murdered Jews even while claiming neutrality.  Wait… that metaphor got away from me.  But my point is: Get over yourself, Sweden.  If it wasn’t for the Nobel prize no one would even remember you.

I’d like to go back and ammend a statement I made earlier about me being an example of an isolated and insular American.  Upon further reflection I realize that my favorite authors are almost all non-Americans.  Jorge Luis Borges (Argentinia), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia), Martin Amis (England), Raymond Queneau (French), and Samuel Beckett (Ireland) to name a few, plus Vladamir Nabokov and Isaac Bashevis Singer who can hardly be considered insular and isolated Americans.  I’m not trying to show off my global-well-read-ness, seriously.  I’m just still pissed about Engdahl.

An interesting note: Le Clézio lives in America, as have many of the non-American winners of the Nobel prize for literature.  Not that I’m saying America is so great.   I’m just saying.


In an attempt to become more connected and cosmopolitan, I’m participating in a Words Without Borders reading event at the excellent, internationally-focused idlewild book store.

The first book in the reading series is Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous, published in English translation earlier this year.  I must say, it scores some points on the title alone.

If you know me, you know that I love judging books by their covers.  And why shouldn’t I?  Someone has spent lots of time and effort crafting a cover designed especially to convey something to the undecided book-browser.  If the cover displays a heroine with a heaving bosom clasping onto a shirtless bodybuilder there’s a good chance I’m not part of the intended reading audience.  Those folks in marketing know what they are doing.

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio has the following things going for it:

a. It’s short.

b. It’s got a fun cover.

c. It’s a good book.

I bet I fooled you there.  You thought I was going to mock the book by saying the only positive things were it’s diminutive length and it’s cover, and then I pulled out the final bullet point.

Actually, I didn’t think it was that good, but I hate being predictable.

It’s an interesting story about Italian citizens and immigrants who are living together in a building, each in turn talking to the police about a murdered tennant and a missing neighbor.

The murder itself is mostly irrelevant to the story, and though the truth about the murder is revealed at the end I can’t imagine anyone getting much satisfaction from it, nor the author intending for us to care.  Rather, the book is about Amedeo and all the immigrants he has helped or befriended, despite the prevailing attitude of racism and distrust towards non-Italians.

My problem is that I feel like I’m being taught a lesson.  You mean the racist, xenophobic Italians are bad and the poor, hard-working immigrants are good?  Thanks!  There’s more to it than that, sure, and even the different immigrants are somewhat xenophobic towards each other, but it’s hard to get past the suffocating political correctness of the novel.

Even amongst the Italians there is dislike for Northern Italians by the Southern Italians and dislike for Southern Italians by Northern Italians and dislike for non-Romans by Romans and dislike of the Romans by non-Romans and Neapolitans seem to be especially disliked by everyone.  So here you have a bunch of immigrants just trying to get by and then all the Italians hating everyone and everything that wasn’t born on the same street as them.

It won Italy’s apparently prestigious Flaiano Prize for Fiction, so I suppose it must be good.

I’m still obviously in a bit of a huff about the Nobel, so that’s all you’re going to get today.  I will order some books by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio and review them soon so that you’ll all get to hear from me (the definitive voice) as to whether he deserves it.

Jeff Goldberg is the senior contributor to This Recording.

“Stephen James” – Koufax (mp3)

“Trouble Will Find You” – Koufax (mp3)

“Five Years of Madness” – Koufax (mp3)

“Get Us Sober” – Koufax (mp3)


Molly came back with an all-too-real Science Corner.

We dissed Long Island mothers.

What white people smell like. Molly says ranch dressing.


17 thoughts on “In Which The Nobel Prize for Literature Is A Joke Among European Blowhards

  1. I read about Le Clezio’s pro-America statements after I already wrote this post. At least this bucks the recent trend of selecting Nobel winners who are outspokenly anti-American. Perhaps that’s why Engdahl felt the need to make some comments himself.

    I think that good writers should transcend nationality. Artists are attempting to create something that will outlive border disputes, so I am suspicious of any artist who dislikes another artist because of their country of birth. Critics, on the other hand…

  2. Well… Look how many of Mr. Clézios books that have been translated into English… Anyway, I’m from Sweden and I liked your post, but I can’t decide whether I agree or disagree. It’s funny anyhow. I just want to tell you that no one in Europe feels that they are a part of Europe, the cultures between countries (even within, you can’t find many people from Spain claiming their spanish, I have yet to find one) are far too divided. There isn’t even a common language to start building something from. Anyway, keep up the good writing.

  3. I think you are wrong about Sweden….surely??
    The Swedes have the ideal mindset to make comparative judgements…..imagine The Nobel Prize being given by a country with a Latino temperament.

  4. Books are written by individual people and awards are given by individual people. I don’t really think bad things about Sweden, nor do I think Sweden is any better or worse of a location than any other country for giving awards. But if Engdahl is going to make grossly unfair generalizations about my country I will play tit for tat. What I do know is that Horace Engdahl ISN’T a good person to be giving awards, because he’s obviously anti-American (and, more broadly, anti-non-European), which clearly makes him non-neutral and a bad person to be determining a supposedly global literary award.

    As far as the comment about Latino temperaments… it’s unimagably offensive and is only a rational argument if you already feel that the Latino temperament is somehow inferior to the Swedish (or any other) temperament. I know quite a few literary scholars from countries with “Latino temperaments” and all of them are more objective than Horace Engdahl.

    So, tell me, what about the Swedish mindset makes the country an ideal place to choose the Nobel? And, furthermore, does Horace Engdahl have this mindset?

  5. The achievements of Sweden and Swedes seen on a per capita basis really is second to none. From industrial concerns like Ikea and Ericsson to the many bands that make Sweden the fourth largest exporter of popular music behind the much more populous countries of the US, the UK and Canada, we’re really punching way above our weight. And them’s just facts.

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