On the podcast this week I started a mini-series on the Nobel Prize for Literature.
There will be episodes in all in the lead-up to the announcement of the prize on 5 October. Covering the Nobel Prizes, has become a small mini-tradition for the Burning Archive podcast. I did an episode (21) in 2021 and two episodes (69 and 70) in 2022. The episodes focussed on the Literature and Peace Prizes but in 2022 looked at the others.
However, this year I am going to focus on the Nobel Prize for Literature, and not cover the other awards. I may, however, do an episode on the history of the Nobel Peace Prize, depending on the quality of the announcement. Unfortunately, I have come to think that the Nobel Peace Prize, which is awarded by the Norwegian political elite not the Swedish academy, has, in effect, become the NATO ‘Peace’ prize. Even members of the Nobel family believe this prize has betrayed its purpose.
However, back to the Literature Prize and my latest episode. It covers the history of the Nobel Prize for Literature, some of my favourite winners, some of the famous favourites who never received the prize, and some of the controversies of this prize that has never been as pure as the driven snow of Sweden.
I also cover in this episode last year’s winner, French writer, Annie Ernaux. I really enjoyed The Years. Here is a fragment from her acceptance speech, the Nobel Lecture, which you can also watch in full here.
Where to begin? I have asked myself this question dozens of times, gazing at a blank page. As if I needed to find the one, the only sentence that would give me entry into the writing of the book and remove all doubts in one fell swoop – a sort of key. Today, as I confront a situation which, the initial stupor having passed – ‘is it really me this is happening to?’ – my imagination represents in a way that instils a growing terror, I am overwhelmed by the same necessity. Finding the sentence that will give me the freedom and the firmness to speak without trembling in this place to which you have invited me this evening.
To find that sentence, I don’t have to look very far. It instantly appears. In all its clarity and violence. Lapidary. Irrefutable. Written in my diary sixty years ago. ‘I will write to avenge my people, j’écrirai pour venger ma race’. It echoed Rimbaud’s cry: ‘I am of an inferior race for all eternity.’ I was twenty-two, studying literature in a provincial faculty with the daughters and sons of the local bourgeoisie, for the most part. I proudly and naively believed that writing books, becoming a writer, as the last in a line of landless labourers, factory workers and shopkeepers, people despised for their manners, their accent, their lack of education, would be enough to redress the social injustice linked to social class at birth. That an individual victory could erase centuries of domination and poverty, an illusion that school had already fostered in me by dint of my academic success. How could my personal achievement have redeemed any of the humiliations and offences suffered? That’s not a question I ever asked myself. I had a few excuses.
From the time I could read, books were my companions, and reading was my natural occupation outside of school. This appetite was nurtured by a mother who, between customers, in her shop, read a great many novels, and preferred me reading rather than sewing and knitting. The high cost of books, the suspicion with which they were regarded at my religious school, made them even more desirable. Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Jane Eyre, the tales of Grimm and Andersen, David Copperfield, Gone with the Wind, and later Les Misérables, The Grapes of Wrath, Nausea, The Stranger: chance, more than the school’s prescriptions, determined what I read.
By choosing literary studies I elected to remain inside literature, which had become the thing of greatest value, even a way of life that led me to project myself into the novels of Flaubert or Virginia Woolf and literally live them out. Literature was a sort of continent which I unconsciously set in opposition to my social environment. And I conceived of writing as nothing less than the possibility of transfiguring reality.
The next episodes of the podcast on the Nobel Prize will be
- William Butler (W.B) Yeats 1923 100th anniversary (15 September)
- Patrick White 1973 50th anniversary (22 September)
- Olga Tokarczuk 2018 my favourite discovery of the alst decade (15 September)
- 2023 Winner announced on the evening of 5 October my time (6 October)
I also am toying with doing a YouTube Livestream on the night of the announcement. Would you join me for that? Let me know with a comment.