10/16/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
American writers of fiction, serious readers and academics are still smarting from the recent comments of Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, the organization that awards the Nobel Prize in literature.
Instead of being angry, I suggest Americans should take Engdahl’s words as valuable instruction.
During an Associated Press interview, Engdahl said of U.S. writers and the state of American fiction in comparison with the rest of the world: “There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world … not the United States. The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. … That ignorance is restraining.”
As expected, the 2008 prize, worth $1.4-million, went to a European, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, a French novelist and essayist. Toni Morrison was the last American to win the award, in 1993.
Le Clezio’s life alone sets him apart from most American writers. Born in Nice, France, in 1940, he traveled the world with his family, holds a doctorate in literature and has taught in several countries, including the United States, where he has a home.
Scholars and critics agree that his work is difficult to pigeonhole. One critic said that Le Clezio “has written of exile and self-discovery, of cultural dislocation and globalization, of the clash between modern civilization and traditional cultures. … He writes as fluently about North African immigrants in France, native Indians in Mexico and islanders in the Indian Ocean as he does about his own past.” Engdahl describes him as “a traveler, a citizen of the world, a nomad.”
Here is my personal view of Engdahl’s indictment of American writers. I have read only one of Le Clezio’s novels, The Interrogation, and I read it as an eager undergraduate. I liked the novel because it reminded me of The Stranger by Albert Camus, my favorite book of all time.
Unlike The Stranger, which pulls much of its strength from the aloneness of existentialism, The Interrogation offers a sensitive protagonist who is full of promise, who wants to connect with his fellow humans but whose hopes are dashed by what I saw as being universal forces.
The universality of European writers attracts the serious reader. In my case, I avoided most American literature classes in college because I preferred Europeans such as Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad, Camus, D.H. Lawrence, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Jean Genet, Graham Greene and William Golding. And I thoroughly enjoyed the Russians, most notably Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
For several years now, I have been reading talented African writers, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, J.M. Coetzee, Chinua Achebe, Alan Paton and others. The reason is simple. Like their European counterparts, African writers wrestle with universal themes that allay artificial differences. These writers attempt to convey commonality among humankind.
Such writers understand the substantive utility and the abstract value of the novel. Le Clezio certainly does, as he demonstrated during a press conference in advance of his Nobel acceptance speech: “I think we have to continue to read novels. Because I think that the novel is a very good means to question the current world without having an answer that is too schematic, too automatic. The novelist, he’s not a philosopher, not a technician of spoken language. He’s someone who writes, above all, and through the novel asks questions.”
I have not read any recent books by American authors Philip Roth, John Updike, Tom Wolfe or Joyce Carol Oates for the very reasons that Engdahl expressed – insularity, isolation and the hypersensitivity to trends in our mass culture.
As a reader of novels and as one who is interested in all countries and peoples of the world and their myths and symbols, I want more than familiar Americanisms in the latest Danielle Steel blockbuster.
American writers are stuck in narrative realism. If they want to become part of what Engdahl refers to as “the big dialogue of literature,” they must become more intellectually cosmopolitan. Otherwise, serious readers will continue to turn to the Europeans.