The Nobel Prize for Literature

1 January 2002

Are the ci­ta­tions written for winners of the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture be­com­ing more and more incomprehensible?

The Swedish Academy started out more or less on the right track with an award to Sully Prud­homme “in special recog­ni­tion of his poetic composition, which gives ev­i­dence of lofty idealism, artis­tic per­fec­tion and a rare com­bi­na­tion of the qual­i­ties of both heart and intellect.” A little ornate perhaps, but this is the Nobel Prize–“because he wrote a bitchin’ book” wouldn’t cut it, to be sure.

In 1923 W.B. Yeats got the prize “for his always in­spired poetry, which in a highly artis­tic form gives ex­pres­sion to the spirit of a whole nation.” By this time the ci­ta­tions had grown more grand, but they’re still very much comprehensible. And there are still straight-forward ci­ta­tions too: Sigrid Undset won in 1928 “principally for her pow­er­ful de­scrip­tions of North­ern life during the Middle Ages”; Pearl Buck won in 1938 “for her rich and truly epic de­scrip­tions of peasant life in China and for her bi­o­graph­i­cal masterpieces.”

By 1960 the citation’s sen­tence struc­ture has in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly in complexity: in that year Saint-John Perse won for “the soaring flight and the evoca­tive imagery of his poetry which in a vi­sion­ary fashion re­flects the con­di­tions of our time.” Easy enough to follow, I suppose, but I can’t imagine the mostly un­nec­es­sary “in a vi­sion­ary fashion” popping up in such a fashion during the prize’s first few decades. I wonder, too, if battles were fought over the in­clu­sion of “soaring flight.” It’s a little … poetic, don’t you think?

Eugenio Montale’s 1975 ci­ta­tion reads: “for his dis­tinc­tive poetry which, with great artis­tic sensitivity, has in­ter­preted human values under the sign of an outlook on life with no illusions.” The Academy’s grip on the ten­drils on meaning is slipping. To what does the “with no illusions” belong? Does Montale interpret “with no illusions,” or does he use his illusion-free outlook on life to “interpret human values” (whatever that means)? And “under the sign of”? The “with great artis­tic sensitivity” is surely mean­ing­less and serves only to futher clog up what was already a pretty far-gone sentence.

The ci­ta­tion of 1983 (for Sir William Golding) has this form: “for his novels which, with the A of B and the C of D, il­lu­mi­nate the human con­di­tion in the world of today.” Now this ci­ta­tion has a fairly straight-forward structure: if A had been, say, “clarity”, B had been “Dr. Seuss”, C had been “charm” and D had been “A.A. Milne,” we would have had a real ci­ta­tion on our hands. But of course the Academy would fuck it up (again). The actual ci­ta­tion reads: “for his novels which, with the per­spicu­ity of re­al­is­tic nar­ra­tive art and the di­ver­sity and uni­ver­sal­ity of myth, il­lu­mi­nate the human con­di­tion in the world of today.” Sigh. Is “realistic nar­ra­tive art” really famed for its perspicuity?? I’m not even sure if the ci­ta­tion is in the “A of B” and “C of D” form. Whoever can tell? It’s a mess.

Things haven’t im­proved much. In 1998 the prize was won by Jose Sara­m­ago “who with para­bles sus­tained by imagination, com­pas­sion and irony con­tin­u­ally enables us once again to ap­pre­hend an elusory reality.” I’m par­tic­u­larly taken by the “continually enables us once again.” Why would “enables us” not do? When we were “enabled” for the first time?

And in 2001, V.S. Naipaul re­ceived the prize for “having united per­cep­tive nar­ra­tive and in­cor­rupt­ible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the pres­ence of sup­pressed histories.” Now I know what it means for a police officer, say, to be “incorruptible.” But what does it mean here? What author demon­strates corruptible scrutiny? I can’t see any jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the “the presence,” either.

Are the ci­ta­tions the result of bad translations? Do they ac­tu­ally make sense? Is it not wor­ri­some that the ci­ta­tions for med­i­cine (“for his dis­cov­ery of Prions–a new bi­o­log­i­cal prin­ci­ple of infection”; “for their dis­cov­er­ies of key reg­u­la­tors of the cell cycle”) make markedly more sense than those for literature?

[The official site of the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture has the ci­ta­tions on sep­a­rate pages; another, far uglier site has them on the same page.]