Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Apollo's 13


 Apollo’s Thirteen:  
Women Who Won the Nobel Prize in Literature

From 1901 to 2013, 110 writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Of the 110 laureates, thirteen have been women. In just over a century then, thirteen women have been recognized as authors of outstanding work in the field of literature. But are they the right thirteen?

One could also ask (and it has often been asked): are the over 90 male award recipients the right, that is to say, the best, 90+ male writers of the past century and beyond? And from there one might formulate a critique of the Nobel Prize in Literature as an institution; the present inquiry is, however, narrower in scope.
Let’s start by taking a look at the thirteen women Nobel Prize-winners, and at the women authors whose writing was contemporary with theirs.

Lagerlöf, Deledda, Undset

Bearing in mind that an obscure-sounding name such as Selma Lagerlöf (Sweden,1909),   Grazia Deledda (Sardinia,1926) or Sigrid Undset (Norway, 1928) may yet denote a particular demographic, one that is being represented by a laureate in literature; and bearing in mind also that, in one’s ignorance of a provincial author, one cannot make assumptions about quality––taking all this into consideration––it appears, even so, as though the laureates of 1909, 1926 and 1928 were, by universal standards, anomalous choices, perhaps reflecting political or other prerogatives.

In particular these first three awards to women writers may have been influenced by the most problematic selection criterion for the Nobel Prize in Literature, as laid out in the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895. Nobel’s will specified that the prize for literature should be awarded for “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” (den som inom litteraturen har producerat det mest framstäende verket i en idealistik riktning).

The proviso that the laureate’s literary work be of an “ideal” or “idealistic” tendency was interpreted literally in the early years of the award. Thus the Nobel Committee cited the work of Selma Lagerlöf as characterized by “lofty idealism,” and that of Grazia Deledda as “idealistically inspired.” In 1928, the Nobel Committee chose in Sigrid Undset a writer of religious as well as historical novels.

The list below places the women laureates of the early 1900s in the context of an entirely speculative––and fanciful––menu of alternate female candidates, assuming the choice of a woman writer may even have been a driver in the nomination process. The context shows what it is that well-known women authors in the West, and a few less well-known writers in the East, were publishing around the time these awards were given:  

1909  : Selma Lagerlöf Nobel Prize
1926 : Grazia Deledda Nobel Prize
1928 :  Sigrid Undset Nobel Prize

            Willa Cather O Pioneers (1913), My Antonia (1918)

            Colette L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, libretto  (1917), Chéri (1920)

            Miles Franklin My Brilliant  Career\ (1901)

            Qiu  Jin Poems

            Edna St. Vincent Millay A Few Figs from Thistles (1920)

            Dorothy Richardson Pointed Roofs (1915)

            Sara Teasdale River to the Sea (1915)

            Marina Tsvetaeva Psyche (1923), Poem of the End (1924)
            Regina Ullman Von der Erde des Lebens (1910)

            Anastasia Verbitskaya The Keys to Happiness, 6 vol. (1908-1913)

Edith Wharton The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), The Age of Innocence (1920)

            Virginia Woolf  The Voyage Out (1915), Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928)

            Bing Xin Jimo [Loneliness] (1922),  Chunshui [Spring Water] (1923)

            Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal  Torches (1903), Thirty-three Abominations (1907)

Willa Cather, Colette, Edith Wharton (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) are today considered more accomplished, influential writers than Lagerlöf, Deledda or Undset. But to award the Nobel to these provincials, however talented, and fail to recognize one of the most important modernist writers: Virginia Woolf, suggests that not all of Apollo’s Thirteen are among the best writers of their time.

Would Woolf have been so recognized, in any case? The “ideal” criterion resulted in the exclusion from consideration of modernists James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Henry James. Moreover, Edith Wharton’s pessimism and Colette’s sensuous, earthy joie de vivre would have excluded these authors from consideration in any case––such tendencies being the opposite of idealistic.

Was the early selection of women laureates, then, a microcosm of the naming of prize-winners generally? Or were different considerations in play for women than for men?   

Another way to pose the above question is to ask whether the early male Nobel laureates were as uniformly provincial as the early women laureates. Some of them undoubtedly were, judging by the unfamiliarity of their names today. But the early male laureates also included Rudyard Kipling (1907), Maurice Maeterlinck (1911), Romain Rolland (1915), Rabindranath Tagore (1918), Anatole France (1921), William Butler Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1926), and Thomas Mann (1929).

and… they smile over his head, silently amused 

1938 : Pearl Buck Nobel Prize

Pearl Buck was a popular choice at a time when there appear to have been only a few serious female contenders. A popular and sentimental choice. And who doesn’t love The Good Earth? Most of us read it in the eighth grade. Who could forget Wang Lung, the hard-working patriarch of a family of Chinese farmers? What girl could forget the scene where O-Lan gives birth, and then goes right back to work in the fields? And who could forget the book’s ending? Even in time of famine, Wang Lung lived by the words: “Never let go of the land.” As Wang Lung lies dying he secures from his wastrel sons the promise that they will never sell the land. They agree to his dying wish: “and although they assure him they will not, they smile over his head, silently amused ...” Devastating!

That said, Pearl Buck was neither a stylistic innovator, nor a master craftsman, nor a visionary. Coming on the heels of the honoring of three provincials––two of them lofty idealists, the third a writer of religious novels, the choice of a popular, but hardly literary, woman writer for The Prize may be continuing an unfortunate trend, one in which the idea (dare I say “ideal”?) of the woman writer is circumscribed by notions of  the writer as a kind of Angel in the House. I say “may” because not having read the work of the Nobelists of 1909, 1926 and 1928, I am  ignorant of what may be their considerable merits.

1938 : Pearl  Buck

            Elizabeth Bowen The House in Paris (1935), The Death of the Heart (1938)

           Vera Brittain Testament of Youth (1933)

            Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm (1932)

            Lillian Hellman The Children’s Hour (1934) The Little Foxes (1939)

            Zora Neale Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

            Daphne du Maurier Rebecca (1936), Frenchman’s Creek (1941)

            Katherine Anne Porter Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1930) Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939)

            Muriel Rukeyser Theory of Flight  (1935), US 1 : Poems (1938)

Desolación   Ternura   Tala   Lagar

1945 : Gabriela Mistral Nobel Prize

Desolation. Tenderness. Felling. The Wine Press. Four poem cycles by one of the preeminent poets of Chile and Latin America. Gabriela Mistral was a distinguished choice for the Nobel in Literature: perhaps the first woman writer of significant stature to be awarded the prize.  As wisely predestined a choice as this seems, however, the 1945 award was highly influenced by chance. According to Horace Engdahl, Secretary of the Swedish Academy, “(Paul) Valéry would have been awarded the prize in 1945, but he died before the decision was finalized.” (Engdahl, “The Nobel Prize : Dawn of a New Canon?”)

A gifted lyric poet and an influential one (she mentored Pablo Neruda), she represented, at the time of the award, an inadequately appreciated culture and language. Her laurels might equally have been worn by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova––except that much of Akhmatova’s work, such as the Poem without a Hero, remained inaccessible due to Soviet censorship. Or Mistral’s laurels might have been worn by somber genius Carson McCullers––except that brilliant lady writers of the Southern United States like McCullers and Flannery O’Connor flew beneath the Nobel Committee’s radar.

1945 : Gabriela Mistral

            Anna Akhmatova Poem Without a Hero (composed 1940-1965)

            Simone de Beauvoir She Came to Stay (1943), The Blood of Others (1945), Who Shall Die (1943)

            Louise Bogan The Sleeping Fury (1937)

 Gwendolyn Brooks A Street in Bronzeville (1945)

            Clarice Lispector Near to the Wild Heart (1943)

            Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)

            Catherine Pozzi Ave (1935), Scopolamine (1935)

 Jean Rhys Good Morning, Midnight (1939)

            Nathalie Saurraute Tropisms (1938)

            Simone Weil The Need for Roots (1943)

Wie nur soll man die Zeit
aus der goldenen Fäden der Sonne ziehen?

1966 : Nelly Sachs Nobel Prize

But how shall time be drawn/ from the golden threads of the sun? It is neither a surprise nor a mistake that Nelly Sachs was awarded the Prize. Sachs is a true visionary. Her poetry is an apparently impersonal chronicle of suffering. Her poetics contains visions of nightmare and rebirth.

Consider the excellence of her poetry. Consider too the important
women writers of the Sixties who didn’t win an award. What a roll call!

1966 : Nelly Sachs

            Marguerite Duras Hiroshima Mon Amour (1960)

            Lorraine Hansberry  A Raisin in the Sun (1959)

            Shirley Jackson We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

            Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

            Iris Murdoch The Sandcastle (1967)

            Joyce Carol Oates  A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), Expensive People (1968), them (1969)
             Flannery O’Connor Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965)

            Sylvia Plath The Colossus and Other Poems (1960), The Bell Jar (1963)

            Katherine Anne Porter Collected Stories (1965)

            Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

            Muriel Spark The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
            Marguerite Yourcenar Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), The Abyss (1968)

Alright, but who were these women writers (hypothetically) up against? Not having access to a list of contenders (those files are sealed), I’ll limit myself to listing the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature in the Sixties: Saint-John Perse (1960), Ivo Andric (1961), John Steinbeck (1962), Giorgos Seferis (1963), Jean-Paul Sartre [declined]  (1964), Mikhail Sholokov (1965), Schmuel Yosef Agnon (1966), Miguel Asturias (1967), Yasunari Kawabata (1968), and Samuel Beckett (1969). A flawed list, no doubt––as every such list is flawed––but pretty impressive nonetheless. I’ll let those wiser than me do the Monday morning quarterbacking. Let me know which of the laureates you would replace, and with whom.

Lost Decades?

1970s – 1980s. There were no women Nobel laureates in the 1970s-1980s. Undoubtedly the male laureates were worthy. Let’s take a look at a few of the women who wrote and published during those decades:

            Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

            A.S. Byatt The Virgin in the Garden (1978)

            Anita Desai Fire on the Mountain  (1978)

            Marguerite Duras  L’Amant (1984)

            Buchi Emechetta The Bride Price (1976), The Joys off Motherhood (1979)

            Ursula K. Le Guin The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

            Margarita Karapanou Kassandra and the Woolf (1974)

            Clarice Lispector Apprenticeship or the Book of Pleasures (1969), The Stream of Life (1973), The Hour of the Star (1977), A Breath of Life (1978

            Penelope Lively The Road to Lichfield (1977), Judgment Day (1980), Moon Tiger (1987)

            Iris Murdoch The Sea, the Sea (1978)

            Cynthia Ozick The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976)

            Barbara Pym Quartet in Autumn (1977)

            Anne Tyler The Accidental Tourist (1985)

The Seven

From the Nineties to the first decades of the new Millennium, a different ratio has obtained. In the twenty-four years from 1990-2013, there have  been  7 women Nobelists in literature, or close to a third of all laureates.

Here are the prize-winners:

1991 : Nadine Gordimer

1993 : Toni Morrison

1996 : Wislawa Szymborska

2004 : Elfriede Jelinek

2007 : Doris Lessing

2009 : Herta Müller

2013 : Alice Munro

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