This week, The Lost Salt Atlas presents a special Nobel Prize edition of Your Weekend Reads, a collection of great reading culled from the web…
Don’t get me wrong. I think Bob Dylan is a genius. Plenty of his songs have defined us, entered our lives and changed us in ways we might not have noticed. Kind of like the weather. And as Leonard Cohen noted, pinning a medal on Dylan is a bit like pinning a medal on Mount Everest.
But when the Nobel committee selected Dylan, it was clearly a tame choice. Maybe if they’d done it thirty years ago it might have the power to shock. And I’m sorry, but I’m of the opinion that what we call “literature” should be something written down in books. Oh sure, Dylan wrote a nice enough memoir, and his lyrics are clever and sometimes poignant. But he’s no T.S. Elliot.
When this year’s prize was announced, I felt a distinct disappointment. Not so with last year’s pick, Alice Munro, which was exhilarating. Here was a very talented writer with a long, distinguished career, working in a somewhat neglected form–the short story–who was suddenly garnering massive attention (and book sales). And let’s face it, everyone knows who Bob Dylan is; possessing that medal won’t do much to effect his album sales.
The other thing I felt missing in this year’s Prize for Literature was a sense of discovery. It’s the only newsworthy award that brings attention to world literature. It’s unlikely that most of us in the English-speaking world would know anything of Wisława Szymborska, Tomas Transtömer, or Naguib Mahfouz had each of these writers not won the Nobel Prize. There’s a certain sense of unveiling, of finding a talent you never knew existed. And sure, there have been mistakes. The fact that Borges, Kafka, Nabokov, and Chinua Achebe were passed up by the Academy while Winston Churchill and Pearl Buck were lauded is unforgivable.
By awarding the prize to Dylan, the Nobel committee denied us the discovery of another great writer.
So, in that spirit, I tracked down seven writers with unheralded reputations who are often mentioned as contenders. I omit Haruki Murakami not because I don’t think he’s great but because nearly everybody knows who he is, and anyway one year soon the prize will probably be his.
So, without further ado, here are my picks for seven deserving writers, and a sample of writing from each. Please click on the link or photo and actually read what they’re written. They deserve that if nothing else.
Olga Tokarczuk One of Poland’s most accomplished authors, Tokarczuk writes fragmented, mythical novels; rich, dense books interwoven with European history. She’s riled the right-wing party in Poland merely for presenting an honest and unvarnished portrait of her country’s past. Read an excerpt from her 2009 novel Flights at the journal Asymptote:
I’m not drawn to centrally located collections, but rather to the smaller places near hospitals, frequently moved down to basements since they’re deemed unworthy of prized exhibition spots, and since they suggest the questionable tastes of their original collectors. A salamander with two tails, face up in an oblong jar, awaiting its judgment day—for all the specimens in the world will be resurrected in the end. A dolphin’s kidney in formaldehyde. A sheep’s skull, a total anomaly, with double sets of eyes and ears and double mouths, pretty as the figure of an ancient god with a dual nature. A human fetus draped in beads and a label in careful calligraphy saying” “Fetus aethiopis 5 mensium.”
Ngugi’wa Thiong’o A perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize, the Kenyan writer works in English, Swahili, and his native Gikuyu. He’s a prolific author, having begun in the theater, and over a long career written dozens of novels and essay collections. He was imprisoned for a year in the 1970s for his honest play I Will Marry When I Want. Read an excerpt from his 2006 novel Wizard of the Crow, a dense, magical-realist account of a dictator of a fictional African country:
So that when some people heard that before him there had been a first Ruler, preceded by a succession of governors and sultans all the way from the eras of the Arabs, the Turks, the Italians, to that of the British, they would simply shake their heads in disbelief saying, no, no, those are just the tales of a daydreamer: Aburiria had never had and could never have another ruler, because had not this man’s reign begun before the world began and would end only after the world has ended? Although even that surmise was shot through with doubts, for how can the world come to an end?
Ko Un A distinguished South Korean poet and practicing Zen Buddhist, Ko Un has been writing quiet, reflective verse for decades, and his critical writings caused the government to imprison him the mid-1980s. His masterpiece is a seven-volume work called 10,000 Lives, in which he addresses a poem to every person he’s known in his lifetime. If you’d like read something a little shorter, try these poems from his Himalayas collection:
Already unrecallable sights have been swept away.
The sound of the river rose louder still.
The only thing left for me was to be swept away in the swollen stream.
I recalled my wife’s face.
I recalled my daughter’s face.
I had absolutely no use for things like truth.
Nurrudin Farah The Somali writer in exile who currently divides his time between South Africa and Minnesota is another recurring presence on Nobel Prize lists. His novels chronicle the difficulties of life for Somalis, whether in the countryside or cities abroad. Read his elegant story “The Start of the Affair,” in the New Yorker, a striking sketch of a gay white man’s obsession with a Somali migrant.
James’s thoughts are suddenly cluttered with the detritus of memories, feelings for which he cannot find adequate explanation. Had he the guts to answer the question honestly, he might have replied that he was interested not in buying any of the trinkets and cheap clothes from China but in him, and only him
Ismail Kadare Albania’s best-known novelist had to tread very carefully during the brutal dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, and for three years he was forbidden to publish anything. But by sticking to mythical or historic settings and keeping his irony subtle, he was able to work against the regime. In “The Migration of the Stork,” at Asymptote, Kadare describes a journey across communist Albania to find an elderly poet who has met disgrace:
He did not stop looking at me with his frozen gaze, with the merciless flakes in-between, threatening and unavoidable like an iceberg. A short while we stayed like that in silence, and then he added: “From what I have read of your works, you are also starting to descend to the dead . . . “
Antonio Lobo Antunes A prolific writer and medical doctor (he has 23 novels under his belt) Antunes is a master stylist who layers multiple voices and linguistic complexity in angry, socially critical novels. None other than Harold Bloom declared Antunes to be one of the contemporary writers who will matter most in future. To get a sense of his virtuoso, harshly honest style, read “South of Nowhere,” in Granta magazine, a grim picture of the colonial war in Angola in the 1970s (in which Antunes served as a medic).
Why the hell won’t they talk about it? I’m beginning to think that the million and a half Portuguese who passed through Africa never existed and I am narrating for you a cheap contrived story composed of one-third bullshit, one-third alcohol, and one-third tenderness to persuade you to watch the sunrise with me in the pale blue clarity that pierces the blinds and reveals the curve of a thigh, the silhouette of a shoulder on the mattress, our bodies entangled in torpor.
Lydia Davis Lydia Davis is the great American writer you’ve never heard of. She’s a master of flash fiction, of small, smart, linguistically playful stories that drill into our era’s anxieties and obsessions. She’s one of the most original writers working today, a kind of Kafka or Robert Walser for the early twenty-first century. Read several microfictions/essays from her Collected Stories at NPR, including a very funny letter to a funeral home taking issue with the phrase “cremains.”
At first we did not even know what he meant. Then, when we realized, we were frankly upset. Cremains sounds like something invented as a milk substitute in coffee, like Cremora, or Coffee-mate. Or it sounds like some kind of a chipped beef dish.