The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

sinclair lewis and the nobel prize

It's hard to take particularly seriously the complaints about the Nobel Prize for Literature for being "politically correct" these days. Yes, the writers the Swedes immortalize these days do tend to be leftist--Dario Fo, Harold Pinter, Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka, Gunter Grass--but they're at least good writers. Look back at the older laureates, say from the first twenty years of the prize. I've heard of--not read, not loved, but HEARD OF--exactly five: Kipling, Sienkiewicz, Tagore, Prudhomme, and Hamsun. I've read ONE: Kipling. I have an interest in reading only two others (Hamsun and Tagore).

So why write about this? I'm reading (and teaching) one of the best-known novels of another early Nobel laureate, Sinclair Lewis. BABBITT is a novel about a classic American character, the go-getter, booster, Rotarian Republican businessman of a medium-sized city. It's a fine novel, a nice period piece with a good (although perhaps overdone) sense of slang and language of the time. But it's not a novel that you'd expect from a Nobelist in his prime. It's barely plotted; in fact, it's largely a character sketch. Babbitt's great change of heart is somewhat unbelievable, and he doesn't really go anywhere. If this is one of the great works by one of the great writers of world lit, it leaves a lot to be desired.

And that's my problem with anyone who complains about today's Nobel Prizes for Literature these days. I'd take the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, Kenzaburo Oe, Gunter Grass, Toni Morrison, J.M. Coetzee, or V.S. Naipaul--all of which I've read--over any of the winners up to 1947 (Gide). After that, the committee seems to have hit its stride for several years: Eliot, Faulkner, Pasternak, Jimenez, Camus, it's hard to argue with any of them. The 1970s were a good time, as well. And frankly, although the winning writers tend to be leftists, unlike winners like Eliot or Saul Bellow or Solzhenitsyn, I think they're generally pretty good choices.

I still don't know who the hell Elfriede Jelinek is, though.


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