Friday, October 7, 2011

Tranströmer


I am very surprised that the selection of Tomas Tranströmer as this year’s Nobel laureate in literature is at all controversial. Tranströmer has been well known to followers of poetry for over thirty-five years, since Robert Bly translated him in the 70s. (It may have even been the 60s). These posts by Teju Cole and David Ulin sum up his virtues very well, but I was surprised by some of the detractors. Of course there are always those upset when an American does not win or when an author is not a household name, but, in the latter case, these critics never seem sated when a household name--and Mario Vargas Llosa, Doris Lessing, the late Harold Pinter, J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, and Orhan Pamuk are that in the world of highbrow letters--do win. 
    Posts such as Tim Parks's strangely (for such an accomplished writer) misunderstand the nature of the prize. The prize is not primarily for writers under fifty; it is not about potential or the best book of the year. It takes the longer view, and that is its value; it is designed not to succumb to the trends of the moment, but to weigh writers and have a conversation about them. This countercultural tendency is the finest thing about the prize. If it just rewarded the trends of the culture now, many prizewinners would look very bad thirty years from now, as is true of the book-centered prizes for national literatures. Even as is, some Noble choices inevitably look hackneyed or dated, even ones made with the best of intentions. If the Nobel were redesigned along the lines of the Booker, as Parks seems to want, it would be even more so. 

I also do not understand the criticism of the Swedish Academy giving it to a Swede. Is the idea that Swedes should be ineligible Or that just because some Swedes won it early on who did not deserve it deserving Swedes now should have to atone for this? A great writer in Swedish (albeit a Finnish Swede), Bo Carpelan, died a few years back without ever having won the prize, and if he were not Swedish speaking his chances would have been much better. Tranströmer himself, at 80, was near to this fate as well. Two generations have passed since a Swede won it, and it is clear that it was the quality of the work that was being honored and indeed the judges if anything had qualms about awarding it to a Swede. I wonder why some critics are anti-Swedish or anti-Tranströmer? Do they see his having worked (before his illness) as a prison psychiatrist as too social-programy, too much like water flouridation? Is it because they are people of the Right and still see Sweden as a socialist welfare state? Under the leadership of Fredrik Reinfeldt it is hardly that now....



1 comment:

Unknown said...

Interestingly to some extent the reaction is seeming to break down along partisan lines-the Guardian seems to like the Prize, but the Telegraph does not. Both Left and Right seem to be missing the point. Tranströmer seems to be not a political writer if anything, his surreal and psychological emphases went against the grain of the dogmatic Leftism of Swedish cultural life in the 60s and 70s.

Isn't it also nice that the prize went to a disabled writer who has succeeded in continuing to write despite his disability? This is not 'politically correct.' It's just human...