Archive for Friday, October 9, 2009

European author wins Nobel lit prize

October 9, 2009


The judges, apparently, could not help themselves.

Just two days after a Nobel Prize official worried the literature committee was too “Eurocentric,” the winner for 2009 was Herta Mueller, a Romanian-born writer once censored in her native country.

It’s no conspiracy, said permanent secretary Peter Englund. It’s more geography.

“If you are European (it is) easier to relate to European literature,” Englund told The Associated Press after the prize was announced Thursday. “It’s the result of psychological bias that we really try to be aware of. It’s not the result of any program.”

Mueller, whose Nobel was seen as a nod to the 20th anniversary of communism’s collapse, was persecuted in her native Romania for her critical depiction of life behind the Iron Curtain.

She was cited by the committee for “the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose” in such novels as “The Land of Green Plums,” which describe “the landscape of the dispossessed.” Beyond the judges’ praise, she will receive $1.4 million in prize money.

Mueller, 56, had to smuggle her early work to Germany to get it published and moved there in 1987. Her latest novel, “Atemschaukel,” or “Swinging Breath,” is up for this year’s German Book Prize, to be announced Monday.

Like last year’s Nobel laureate, Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio of France, little of Mueller’s work is available in English translation, although various publishers say they plan reissues.

Writers from all over the world have won Nobels in the prize’s 108-year history, but European-based authors, whether natives or emigrants, have had a virtual monopoly in recent years — a trend the committee has defended, apologized for and perpetuated.

In 2008, then-permanent secretary Horace Engdahl declared bluntly that Europeans tended to win because they deserved to win, especially compared to Americans, whom Engdahl dismissed as “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.”

Englund, in an AP interview this week, hinted strongly that the committee was looking elsewhere. Without naming names, he said some American authors indeed were worthy of the prize.

He acknowledged that members of the Swedish Academy, who choose the winner and are themselves European, tend to “relate more easily to literature written in Europe and in the European tradition.”

“I think that is a problem,” Englund said Tuesday.

Apparently not so big a problem.

“Every prize inevitably faces these kinds of issues. You could say the same about the Pulitzers or National Book Awards, that certain types of books seem more likely to be under consideration,” said Mike Levine, an acquisitions editor for Northwestern University Press, which has published some of Mueller’s work in English translation.

Levine said such recent choices as Mueller, Doris Lessing and Harold Pinter show the academy is interested not just in European writers, but in European writers whose books address political issues.

Still, “writers in other parts of the world are doing that, so it should be easy, I would think, to find those writers,” he said.

No American has won since Toni Morrison, in 1993. Other countries, and continents, have waited longer. Canada is home to at least three of the world’s most respected authors — Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje.

But the last Canadian to receive the Nobel was Saul Bellow, who won in 1976 and left for the U.S. as a boy. No South American writer has won since Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1982.


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