Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Because it seems that I just can't accomplish anything without it involving ticking items off a long list...

Ever since I moved at the end of June, I haven’t felt much of a desire to keep this blog updated, aside from the weekly Famous Last Words quote and a few other fluke posts. Honestly, I think most of this can be traced back to my days at Screengrab, when I had to grind out 7 to 10 posts a week so that the money kept coming in. Now that I’m no longer doing that kind of mercenary work, I find that my hunger to keep writing has waned quite a bit. And now that living with Angela and the Offspring has required me to become much more domesticated than ever before, I don’t necessarily have the energy to spend my precious free time trying to keep up my writing. As a result, the promised reviews of Criterion DVDs and Reviews By Request columns will have to go on the back burner.

However, there’s hope. In the past, I’ve found that I can rejuvenate my own writing mojo by immersing myself in the writings of others. Of course, being the type of person I am I can’t just make a promise to myself to read more, since my free time is at a premium and if I don’t set myself a tangible goal I’ll most likely spend all of that precious free time watching movies instead of spending some of it on books. But what to read?

Some months ago, I was looking at a list of Nobel Laureates in Literature, and I noticed how few of them I had actually read. As a humanities major and fairly well-rounded guy, I consider myself to be sort of knowledgeable when it comes to literature and such, but I’ve never heard of the majority of the Nobel winners, and I’ve read even fewer (19, to be precise). Here’s the full list of winners, with the ones I’ve read in boldface:

2008 – J.M.G. Le Clézio
2007 – Doris Lessing
2006 – Orhan Pamuk
2005 – Harold Pinter
2004 – Elfriede Jelinek
2003 – J.M. Coetzee
2002 – Imre Kertész
2001 – V.S. Naipaul
2000 – Gao Xingjian
1999 – Günter Grass
1998 – José Saramago
1997 – Dario Fo
1996 – Wisława Szymborska
1995 – Seamus Heaney
1994 – Kenzaburo Oe
1993 – Toni Morrison
1992 – Derek Walcott
1991 – Nadine Gordimer
1990 – Octavio Paz
1989 – Camilo José Cela
1988 – Naguib Mahfouz
1987 – Joseph Brodsky
1986 – Wole Soyinka
1985 – Claude Simon
1984 – Jaroslav Siefert
1983 – William Golding
1982 – Gabriel Garcia Márquez
1981 – Elias Canetti
1980 – Czesław Miłosz
1979 – Odysseas Elytis
1978 – Isaac Bashevis Singer
1977 – Vicente Aleixandre
1976 – Saul Bellow
1975 – Eugenio Montale
1974 – Eyvind Johnson
1974 – Harry Martinson
1973 – Patrick White
1972 – Heinrich Böll
1971 – Pablo Neruda
1970 – Alekdandr Solzhenitsyn
1969 – Samuel Beckett
1968 – Yasumari Kawabata
1967 – Miguel Ángel Asturias
1966 – Shmuel Yosef Agnon
1966 – Nelly Sachs
1965 – Mikhail Sholokhov
1964 – Jean-Paul Sartre
1963 – Giorgos Seferis
1962 – John Steinbeck
1961 – Ivo Andrić
1960 – Saint-John Perse
1959 – Salvatore Quasimodo
1958 – Boris Pasternak
1957 – Albert Camus
1956 – John Ramón Jiménez
1955 – Halldór Laxness
1954 – Ernest Hemingway
1953 – Winston Churchill
1952 – François Mauriac
1951 – Pär Lagerkvist
1950 – Bertrand Russell
1949 – William Faulkner
1948 – T.S. Eliot
1947 – André Gide
1946 – Hermann Hesse
1945 – Gabriela Mistral
1944 – Johannes V. Jensen
1940-1943 – Not awarded
1939 – Frans Eemil Sillanpää
1938 – Pearl S. Buck
1937 – Roger Martin du Gard
1936 – Eugene O’Neill
1935 – Not awarded
1934 – Luigi Pirandello
1933 – Ivan Bunin
1932 – John Galsworthy
1931 – Erik Alex Karlfeldt
1930 – Sinclair Lewis
1929 – Thomas Mann
1928 – Sigrid Undset
1927 – Henri Bergson
1926 – Grazia Deledda
1925 – George Bernard Shaw
1924 – Wladyslaw Reymont
1923 – William Butler Yeats
1922 – Jacinto Benavente
1921 – Anatole France
1920 – Knut Hamsun
1919 – Carl Spitteler
1918 – Not awarded
1917 – Karl Adolph Gjellerup
1917 – Henrik Pontoppidan
1916 – Verner von Heidenstam
1915 – Romain Rolland
1914 – Not awarded
1913 – Rabindranath Tagore
1912 – Gerhart Hauptmann
1911 – Maurice Maeterlinck
1910 – Paul Heyse
1909 – Selma Lagerlöf
1908 – Rudolf Christoph Eucken
1907 – Rudyard Kipling
1906 – Giosuè Carducci
1905 – Henryk Sienkiewicz
1904 – José Echegaray
1904 – Frédéric Mistral
1903 – Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
1902 – Theodor Mommsen
1901 – Sully Prudhomme

Now, I realize that there are a few all-time greats that I’ve somehow missed over the years- my excuse for never having read Pinter and Pirandello is that given the choice I’d rather see dramatic works performed rather than read them, but I don’t really have an excuse for missing out on Garcia Marquez and Lewis. However, when it comes to the majority of the winners, I’m hardly alone in thinking them fairly obscure (even the far-better-read-than-I Victor Morton believes this to be the case). So being the unreformed list junkie that I am, I settled upon the idea of reading a work by every Nobel Laureate in Literature, and write at least a little something about each one.

One thing that drew me to this idea was the same driving force that was behind my old Yesterday’s Hits columns- the idea of the Nobel as a snapshot of the time in which it was given. For example, in its early years, the impetus behind the literature Nobel wasn’t merely excellence in writing but pushing the literary art “in an ideal direction,” which allegedly swayed the voters away from recognizing the era’s more pessimistic writers. Likewise, recent years have seen an upswing in winners from Third World nations, along with non-white and female Laureates.

And all the while, the Swedish Academy has maintained (and even admitted to) a bias against American literature, to the point where such greats as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, and Tom Wolfe- to say nothing of genre masters like Raymond Chandler- have been snubbed. I suppose that what I’m really curious about is whether winners like Sully Prudhomme, Dario Fo, and Winston Churchill (yes, really) are legitimately great writers whose work hasn’t been widely embraced by the literary establishment at large. Because if you’re going to give out the world’s most prestigious literary honor and not recognize such canonically awesome figures as Joyce, Proust, Nabokov, Ibsen, and Wodehouse, I want to know why.

Of course, an undertaking like this comes with a few conditions:

1. I plan to read at least one work by each writer, if possible in the medium in which he is most celebrated. For example, if writer X is primarily known as a playwright, I’ll read one of his plays. In doing so, I think I’ll be able to find a work that represents him well enough to get a taste of his overall importance. At least, that’s my hope.

2. If the writer is best known for poetry, I’ll read a substantial number of poems, especially if they’re short. I’d say fifty pages’ worth at least.

3. If I’ve already read something by a writer, I will choose a work that I haven’t read.

4. Don’t be surprised if I choose works that were later adapted into movies, especially if they’re movies I really like. For example, my choice of a Sinclair Lewis book will almost certainly be Dodsworth, not least because I think Dodsworth is one of the greatest movies ever made and that every lover of film owes it to himself to watch it. But more to the point, I think that having seen the film, I’ll be able to get past the plot of the book so that I can better appreciate the style of writing and the way that Lewis unfolds the tale.

5. If some of these works just don’t do it for me, I’m giving myself the option of checking out after 100 pages. I figure that’s ample opportunity for an author to show me if he or she has “got it.” I don’t plan on doing this very often, but let’s face it- when you’re dealing with more than a hundred works of literature, odds are good that at least a handful of them will be fairly tedious or just, you know, not my thing.

Right now, the plan is to start with the most recent winner and progress in reverse chronological order. The reason for this is primarily logistical, since although the local library systems carry almost all of the recent winners, the selection of early winners is much sparser, so I’ll take the time I’ve got to make arrangements to get my hands on their works.

The project will commence officially within the next week, when I pick up the copy of le Clézio’s The Interrogation I put on reserve. I’m considering starting up a new blog just for the purpose of this project, and I’ll link to it should that come to pass. I can’t say how long this project will take- I imagine that at least one more laureate will be recognized before it’s all said and done- but I hope to keep it up as long as it takes. And maybe, just maybe, somewhere along the way I’ll discover some more great writers whose work I’ll pursue further in the future.

Any suggestions you might have for the project would be appreciated, of course. If you’ve read some of the authors I haven’t, which works would you recommend? And how would I go about finding the more obscure winners? As usual, the comments section is open for you to provide input, or even to wish me luck. And who knows? My wacky adventures in lit-blogging could very well result in a Nora Ephron movie about the magic of reading, possibly starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Alfred Nobel, Seth Rogen as me, and perhaps even a cameo by John Mahoney as William Faulkner. Stay tuned for more details...


Bemis said...

I look forward to your thoughts on Sartre and Pinter.

Also, could you e-mail me your new address? Black Light has returned your investment, and I'd like to send a DVD soon as well.

jahs34 said...

I had no idea Churchill and William Golding were Nobel prize winners. In fact the only Golding i'm aware of is Lord of the Flies.