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Of unknown Nobelists

Till Thursday, I didn’t know anything about Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio and he didn’t know anything about me, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Oct 12, 2008 01:12 IST
Indrajit Hazra

Till Thursday, I didn’t know anything about Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio and he didn’t know anything about me. More importantly, you didn’t know anything about Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio but you knew about me. Now, in the whole jing-bang about the Nobel Prize going to writers that ‘nobody’s heard of’, you may have thought that even I would have made a better candidate for the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature than Le Clezio. Flattering as such a (non-forthcoming) suggestion may have sounded to me, it would have been the stupidest ‘literary’ thought you could have had since you considered Mulk Raj Anand to be readable.

Apart from the fact that many more people in the world, especially in France and — this is important — in the Swedish Academy, have read and rather liked Le Clezio’s writings more than mine, it would be fair to say that the French author of more than 40 other books, deserves the gong more than I do.

So, knowing a ‘Nobel name’ means absolutely (1938 Nobel laureate) Pearl S. Buck-all. Well, of course, there have been the Kiplings, the Eliots, the Camuses, the Marquezes, the Naipauls and the Pamuks. But coming as sure as non-hunger follows a meal, there have been Rene-Francois-Armand Prudhomme (the first Literature laureate in 1901), Eyvind Johnson (who, along with fellow Nobel judge Harry Martinson, won the prize in 1974 beating slightly better known and more deserving contenders like Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow), Frans Eemil Sillanpaa (1939), Gao Xingjian (2000) and Elfriede Jelinek (2004).

Your not having read any Ivan Klima or my not having read any Phaniswarnath Renu doesn’t make Klima or Renu just posterboys of pretension. Sure, it’s fashionable to slag literary writing these days. After all, it comes as a healthy backlash against decades of gravitas-filled Sahitya Akademics spitting at James Hadley Chases and Stephen Kings. But after the dust of ‘highbrow vs lowbrow’ settles (and frankly, I adore my Czeslaw Milosz and love my Ian Rankin), Chetan Bhagat is no Adolfo Bioy Casares, early 20th century Argentinian author of the dazzling novella, The Invention of Morel, no matter how many godzillion copies the former outsells the latter.

Coming back to the noble Nobel (the way the Holy Quran is holy), the ruckus about Le Clezio in non-France arises from three basic issues:

Non-Nobel Big Daddies: ‘Famous, great writers’ not getting the prize seriously affects the Nobel’s credibility. If Kafka and Nabokov aren’t on the roster (and they aren’t), I can smell dodgy motives. That’s worse than the Sylvester Stallone-starring Rocky beating Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver for the 1976 Best Movie Oscar.

Highbrow Lowdown: In an age when ‘literary’ prizes are ‘democratised’ — the Booker gang, for instance, publicly patronises ‘accessible’ literary fiction these days — the Nobel choice is elitist. But why lie about enjoying Ludlum over Le Carré, Dick Francis over Sam Beckett, De over Ghosh just because you’ll get jibed at for being a pretentious twat? In any case, our age doesn’t identify and celebrate ‘great authors’ any more. Number of copies sold and advances mark the Big Writers.

Judge A Book By Its Cove’rage: Most of us (myself included) form opinions about writers from the space devoted to them in the press. And since an overwhelming number of us refer to English language publications, these names pretty much boil down to those who write in English (thus an overwhelmingly large proportion of British and American writers) or those translated into English. So we don’t have a clue about Jamal Mahjoub or Prabhatkumar Mukhopadhyay. (Trust me, both are smashing writers.)

With the Nobel awarded to him, now you may read a Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio book (if you read stuff other than Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of books). And for every writer, readers knowing that he exists is half the battle won. Ask me.