Nobel literature prize goes to little-known European amid concern other regions ignored

By Hillel Italie, AP
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Nobel lit prize goes to little-known European

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.

“I don’t think the awards are too ‘Eurocentric,’ but I do think we’d benefit from seeing more writers from Asia, South America, Africa on the list,” said Chad Post, director of Open Letter Books, a nonprofit publishing house at the University of Rochester that specializes in literature in translation.

“In any given year, one can come up with a list of 10-20 writers from all over the world that are deserving of the award, and then it tends to go to someone that no one is even talking about.”

Mueller’s selection does conform to a goal stated by Engdahl last year but enforced sporadically: “The purpose of the prize is to make them famous,” he said, “not to tap them when they are famous.”

In the United States, even such leading literary critics as James Wood and Harold Bloom say they have never read Mueller. One U.S-based admirer is M.A. Orthofer, managing editor of the Complete Review, an online journal which reviews many works in translation.

“I don’t know that she stood out from a lot of other anti-totalitarian/East European writing of the 1980s … but there’s an attention to language that is appealing in all her work,” said Orthofer, who read her work in German.

“I think the fact that she lived in Romania, as part of the German-speaking minority community, made her particularly attentive to words and meanings — and she seems to have slightly different feel for German than her German-born and -raised contemporaries, to good effect in much of her writing.”

Nobels have long alternated between the well known (Pinter, Lessing, Orhan Pamuk) and the not so known (Mueller, le Clezio, Elfriede Jelinek). If fame can be measured by sales, then the Nobel mission has not always been achieved. Japan’s Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 winner, became a far more popular writer. Jelinek and le Clezio are just slightly better known now than when they won.

“Some of that depends on the accessibility of the author, let’s not kid ourselves,” said Morgan Entrekin, head of Grove/Atlantic, Inc., which has published Oe and Jelinek. “But a Nobel can really make a writer part of the canon, in a serious way. And it makes the writer a lot more likely to be taught at universities.”

Though the Nobel committee said the award was not timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism, that’s how it was perceived by many.

“Today, 20 years after the fall of the wall, it is a wonderful message that such high-quality literature about this life experience is being honored with the literature Nobel Prize,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters. “We are naturally delighted that Herta Mueller has found a home in Germany.”

Very few foreign-language books make it into English and even fewer reach a wide audience.

Mueller’s translated work is mostly out of print and has been released by various publishers, not all of them sure they still own the rights.

Holt/Metropolitan, an imprint of Macmillan, will reissue hardcovers of “The Land of Green Plums” and “The Appointment,” while paperbacks are planned by the Macmillan imprint Picador. Serpent’s Tail, which 20 years ago released Mueller’s “The Passport,” will have a new edition out Oct. 19. Northwestern University Press was trying to determine whether it could reprint “Traveling On One Leg.”

“The nice thing about this prize is that brings attention to us and shows people the kind of works we publish,” said Levine of Northwestern, which announced last month that the school’s highly regarded TriQuarterly literary journal would become an online only publication.

“These days, that’s a great thing for a university press.”


Associated Press writers Karl Ritter and Matt Moore in Stockholm contributed to this report.

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