Nobel Jury Blows It Again With Obscure Swedish Poet: Commentary

Tomas Transtromer
Tomas Transtromer, a Swedish poet and translator known for his depiction of nature and his economy of form. He is the winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature. Photographer: Paula Transtromer/Bloodaxe Books via Bloomberg

Literature’s newest Nobel laureate is widely read, reviewed and respected. In Sweden, that is. Despite having been translated into more than 50 languages, poet Tomas Transtromer is best known internationally as one of those arcane names that draw perennial bets from Nobel-watchers fond of mocking the Swedish Academy.

It’s not that the 80-year-old Swede isn’t a good poet. He may even be a great one. As Brooklyn-based novelist Teju Cole tweeted just hours after the announcement, “To read Transtromer is to surrender to the far-fetched. It is to wake up in the middle of the night and listen to what the house is saying.”

Yet his victory does nothing to restore the standing of a prize whose decisions have increasingly courted accusations of Eurocentricity, political motivation and anti-Americanism.

Having doubled as a professional psychologist for much of his life, Transtromer has a slender oeuvre. As Peter Englund, the academy’s permanent secretary, said at the Stockholm press conference, it could fit into “a not-too-large pocketbook.”

This shouldn’t matter. As many novelists fail to grasp, quantity has zero bearing on literary quality. Nevertheless, it seems bound up with the Swedish Academy’s apparent passion for the esoteric.

Then there’s Transtromer’s Swedish nationality. Though almost 40 years have passed since the academy last rewarded a homegrown author, Europeans have long dominated. It’s beginning to seem provincial.

Isolated, Insular

Back in 2008, Englund’s predecessor, Horace Engdahl, notoriously accused American literary culture of being “too isolated, too insular.” A week later, the award went to another European unknown, France’s Jean Marie Gustave le Clezio.

This was tipped to be poetry’s year, and Transtromer is the first poet to win since Wislawa Szymborska in 1996. However, you have to peer even further back to find the last U.S. victor, Toni Morrison, who won in 1993.

At this point, it’s tempting to ignore the antics of a secretive few in Stockholm. Yet the fact remains that the Nobel Prize in Literature captures the global gaze like no other award. In its perverse preference for authors obscure, politically correct or downright unreadable (all three in the case of Elfriede Jelinek), it not only damages its own authority, it marginalizes the art it claims to fete.

While prizes can play a part in broadening our horizons, that is not the Nobel’s job. In anointing greatness, the Swedish Academy has the opportunity to celebrate the vitality of the written word and highlight its enduring centrality to life in the 21st century.

Philip Roth

Of many overlooked authors from Umberto Eco to Ismail Kadare, Philip Roth’s is the name most frequently invoked. Despairing fans have cited the Nobel’s goal of rewarding “outstanding work in an ideal direction” -- whatever that means -- and used Roth’s relative lack of political engagement as an excuse for his repeated snubbing. Transtromer’s victory blows that argument out of the water.

Assuming Roth is condemned to the illustrious ranks of writers spurned by Stockholm -- including Joyce, Proust and Nabokov -- here is an alternative suggestion for next year’s prize: Margaret Atwood. It’s hard to think of another author so accomplished, original and engaged with our changing world.

She would become only the 13th woman to claim this prize since it was inaugurated in 1901. Oh, and it probably can’t hurt that she’s Canadian, not American.

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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