Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize for Literature this year encourages J. BROOKS SPECTOR to begin beating the drum for the nomination of Athol Fugard for next year – and to propose the fixing of a great wrong in the list of winners.
Okay here’s a quick literary pop quiz for all you really smart, well-read folks. What do authors Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, Ibsen, Strindberg, Zola, Proust, Kafka, Rilke, Brecht, Croce, Hardy, Henry James, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, and García Lorca all have in common?
Answer: although they were all very much alive once the Nobel Prizes for Literature were under way (first award was in 1901), none of those worthies got the nod from the executors of Alfred Nobel’s estate and the committee set up to administer the awards selection.
While that list above didn’t make the cut, worthies such as Sully Prudhomme, José Echegaray, Rudolf Eucken, Paul von Heyse, Verner von Heidenstam, Wladyslaw Reymont, Grazia Deledda, Erik A. Karlfeldt, Frans Sillanpää, and Halldór Laxness all did. As baseball great and sports humourist Yogi Berra used to say about such things, “You could look it up.”
What do the arrangements for the prize actually call for? Well, the Nobel Prize’s own website says:
“Among the five prizes provided for in Alfred Nobel’s will (1895), one was intended for the person who, in the literary field, had produced ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’. [Italics added] The Laureate should be determined by ‘the Academy in Stockholm’, which was specified by the statutes of the Nobel Foundation to mean the Swedish Academy. These statutes defined literature as ‘not only belles-lettres, but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value’. At the same time, the restriction to works presented ‘during the preceding year’ was softened: ‘older works’ could be considered ‘if their significance has not become apparent until recently’.”
The Prize’s website goes on to note,
“As guidelines for the distribution of the Literature Prize the Swedish Academy had the general requirement for all the prizes – the candidate should have bestowed ‘the greatest benefit on mankind’ – and the special condition for literature, ‘in an ideal direction’.”
Both prescriptions are vague and the second, in particular, was to cause much discussion. What did Nobel actually mean by ideal? In fact, the history of the Literature Prize appears as a series of attempts to interpret an imprecisely worded will. The consecutive phases in that history reflect the changing sensibility of an academy continuously renewing itself. The main source of knowledge of the principles and criteria applied is the annual reports which the committee presented to the academy (itself making part of that body)….
The Nobel Prize website divides the awards into several distinct historical periods, since 1901. In sequence, thematically, these have included, first, recognition of a “Lofty and Sound Idealism”. Thereafter, the themes were a “Sense of Neutrality” during World War I, then the “Great Style” epoch of the 1920s, followed by more “Universal Interest”. And that was followed by “The Pioneers” (setting out a new literary agenda after the Second World War), followed by a closer “Attention to Unknown Masters”, and then, finally, “The Literature of the Whole World”, from 1986 onwards.
On the last category, the Prize’s website observed, “the Academy’s Eurocentric policy was also significantly altered by the choices of Wole Soyinka from Nigeria in 1986 and Naguib Mahfouz from Egypt in 1988. Later practice shows the extension to Nadine Gordimer from South Africa, to Kenzaburo Oe from Japan, to Derek Walcott from St Lucia in the West Indies, to Toni Morrison, the first Afro-American on the list, and to Gao Xingjian, the first laureate to write in Chinese.”
After last year’s lateral thinking choice of singer/songwriter/counter culture balladeer-troubadour to the world, Bob Dylan, it seems the Prize Committee is beginning to consider more out-of-the-box awards than previously. If so, how long will it be before a filmmaker such as Ridley Scott, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, or someone even younger, and working in the most advanced possible multimedia space, is eventually given the nod?
In the meantime, before we have that putative electronic media awardee or even just a run-of-the-mill filmmaker, this year’s winner was the Japanese-British (or is it British-Japanese?) novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. Born in Japan, but brought to the UK as a small child, where he grew up, he may probably be best known to the world as the writer of his novel, The Remains of the Day. Truthfully, his fame grew further by virtue of that wonderful cinematic treatment of Ishiguro’s novel, starring Anthony Hopkins as a just-retired butler who has seen and heard pretty much everything during his service on a major landed estate. In doing this job, he has forgone the possibility of a romantic tie. Then, finally, in his solitary retirement, he drives through Britain, trying to figure out what his life has meant after all this duty, sadness and disappointment.
There is no doubt that Ishiguro is a fine choice, although there certainly were other reasonable claimants for this year’s brass ring. These would have included the prolific Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, American novelist Philip Roth, and Kenyan man of letters Ngugi wa Thiong’o, just to name a few. The Nobel Prize rules also dictate that the winners must be alive in the year of their awards and so those three men (aged 68, 84, and 79 respectively) are certainly not getting any younger and the time of their consideration is soon, surely.
But there is one other name that almost certainly should have been given the nod years ago. And that, of course, is South Africa’s Athol Fugard. Here, too, is a creative genius in the final chapters of his life, and now at the age of 85 he seems to bear a special worthiness for this prize.
Almost right from the start of his career as a playwright with works like The Blood Knot and Boesman and Lena, Fugard’s output has been performed globally to extraordinary acclaim. Whether he was the solo author, or where he collaborated closely in the creative process with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshonga (such as with Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island), the vast body of Fugard’s work has focused laser-like on the creation of messages that, as the Nobel Prize stipulations say, are in “an ideal direction”. Consider, for example, such plays as My Children! My Africa! or Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act for that reach towards “the ideal”.
Seen at first as one of South Africa’s most effective literary voices against the failed ideology of apartheid; as the direct outrages of apartheid have receded Fugard’s writing has become increasingly universal as with such recent works as The Shadow of the Hummingbird. That work focused on old age and the passage of memory on to succeeding generations.
Numerous Fugard plays have also been turned into films. And many of his works are now part of the standard repertoire of drama companies globally or used as set works at university drama departments around the world.
The challenge now, of course, is to get his name into the consciousness of the Swedish committee that actually makes the selection. That means some serious lobbying must begin right now. Today.
So, as a public service, per the Nobel Committee’s instructions, here is the exact process for the nomination and selection of an eventual winner:
“The Nobel Committee for Literature sends invitation letters to persons who are qualified to nominate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The right to submit proposals for the award of a Nobel Prize in Literature shall, by statute, be enjoyed by:
Selection of Nobel Laureates
The Swedish Academy is responsible for the selection of the Nobel Laureates in Literature, and has 18 members. The Nobel Committee for Literature is the working body that evaluates the nominations and presents its recommendations to the Swedish Academy, and comprises four to five members.
Below is a brief description of the process involved in choosing the Nobel Laureates in Literature.
September – Invitation letters are sent out. The Nobel Committee sends out nomination forms to 600-700 individuals and organisations qualified to nominate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
February – Deadline for submission. The completed forms must reach the Nobel Committee not later than 31 January of the following year. The Committee then screens the nominations and submits a list for approval by the Academy.
April – Preliminary candidates. After further studies, the Committee selects 15–20 names for consideration as preliminary candidates by the Academy.
May – Final candidates. The Committee whittles down the list to five priority candidates to be considered by the Academy.
June-August – Reading of productions. The members of the Academy read and assess the work of the final candidates during the summer. The Nobel Committee also prepares individual reports.
September – Academy members confer. Having read the work of the final candidates, members of the Academy discuss the merits of the different candidates’ contribution.
October – Nobel Laureates are chosen. In early October, the Academy chooses the Nobel Laureate in Literature. A candidate must receive more than half of the votes cast. The Nobel Laureates names are then announced.
December – Nobel Laureates receive their prize. The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony takes place on 10 December in Stockholm, where the Nobel Laureates receive their Nobel Prize, which consists of a Nobel Medal and Diploma, and a document confirming the prize amount.
All clear? Let us get some professors of literature to get that nomination in, in time, in full, in-depth. Maybe we should even send a set of all Fugard’s plays and published essays, as well as the films that have been done from some of them. And maybe there should be a few testimonial letters from some other globally regarded theatre people as well. If nominators need some help, they can let me know, but time’s a-wasting. It’s already October.
Oh, and one other thing. Regarding that amazing list of now deceased, non-award winners, something really must be done about that. In American baseball, for the game’s stars, five years after they retire, their names can be considered for the Baseball Hall of Fame. But sometimes the contemporary view of who was a “great” needs to be rethought after the passage of decades. That’s why the Hall of Fame has a veterans committee that evaluates much older possible candidates for a second or third look. They can even be players who are deceased but whose achievements really should be acknowledged by admission into that baseball shrine in Cooperstown, New York.
So, how about it, Nobel Prize organisers? What about a veterans committee that could evaluate the achievements of the Tolstoys, the Chekhovs, the Gorkys, and so forth – and recommend them for posthumous awards and recognition by the Nobel franchise, even if not the money that comes with the certificate. While they’re at it, maybe they could also take a look at the genius of the sadly overlooked writer, Stephan Zweig, as well.
And then there is my favourite deceased candidate, George Orwell. Here was a writer who understood the nature of imperialism from inside the beast when he first broke through with his astounding essays and a splendid first novel. He then made understanding of the lives of the European poor impossible to ignore with several non-fiction novels. Unwilling to stay as an observer, he personally fought fascism in Spain and then quickly penned the greatest book to come out of that struggle. Later in life, before he died in the prime of his writing life from TB, he found a way to dissect the future of state tyranny. In the process, he coined a phrase that has become the watchword for the fear of the coming crushing of liberty – “Big Brother”. Surely he too deserves a look, finally? DM
Photo: Athol Fugard as Oupa in The Shadow of the Hummingbird. Photo: Jesse Kramer