The Blog

Ignoble Prizes

The predictable politics of the newest Nobel Prize laureates.

12:00 AM, Oct 16, 2008 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The ignobility of the Nobel Prizes awarded this year by the Swedish and Norwegian Academies, the first for literature and the second for peace, maintains the pattern of recent years. Bereft of inspiration or awareness, they are reduced to honoring nearly-forgotten writers, and do-gooders with questionable records of achievement. In addition, as often as can be managed, they favor individuals with an anti-American, anti-Western agenda.

Last year's Nobel in literature went to Doris Lessing, whose Golden Notebook, describing the 1950s and widely read a decade afterward, was a moving account of the tragic effects of Stalinism among British intellectuals. But it was also the high point of her career. The need of the Swedes to reward a writer long past her prime spoke to a lack, in Stockholm's view, of suitable candidates among authors whose efforts were more recent in distinction. The Nobel Prize in literature, like its later recipients, is also long past its prime; it now celebrates nostalgia for the lost world of the literary left, rather than any attainments of the present.

The 2008 literary laureate is J.M.G. Le Clézio, a French author who, like Lessing, produced his last works of substance in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he was one of the French "new novelists." After prose experimentation ran out of steam among Gallic readers, he turned to a more predictable mannerism, which broadened his audience but did not deepen his significance. In 1980, his book Désert (The Desert) gained him an award from the Académie Française named for Paul Morand, the epitome of safe, mediocre French literary output. While his earlier, innovative works, like The Interrogation (1963), The Book of Flights (1969), War (1970), and The Giants (1973) were done into English--the last three by the gifted translator and general provocateur Simon Watson Taylor--Désert was not.

The transformation of Le Clézio from literary nonconformist to pillar of the French Academy may be taken as symbolic of the broader deadening of French nerve as the rebels of the 1960s became the comfortable bien-pensants of 21st century official culture. Predictably, the work of Le Clézio, who was born on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius and has traveled extensively in Mexico and other tropical countries, pays homage to multiculturalism. Désert has been praised by the academicians for its evocation of the Berber (Blue Men) culture of ancient North Africa, its images of French imperialism, and its portrayal of the demoralized arrival of immigrants in contemporary France.

This work represents an elegant reduction of Latin American "magical realism" for the French public and finally, the embalming of high literary modernism in post-modernist political correctness. In its pages we find another lost world, that of the Sahara; and the desert it summons up could be a trope for the presumptive void of present-day creativity. Le Clézio partakes of the pathos visible on every modern university campus. Where once a Duchamp or Breton, a Borges or Paz, a Joyce or Beckett dared new forms of expression, millions of their tenured imitators simply repeat enervating clichés. Le Clézio comes to us now as a decorative, French simulacrum resembling the mendacious myths of Edward Said. With such works, the French left, today ensconced in the positions it once derided, may easily ignore its moral nullity.

The bestowal of the literary Nobel on Le Clézio may be innocuous, particularly when compared with the truly ignominious past tributes paid by the Swedes to the deranged anti-American target=_blank> Harold Pinter (2005), the Austrian porno queen Elfriede Jelinek (2004), the Nazi apologist Gunter Grass (1999), the unrepentant Stalinist and former political censor José Saramago (1998), the imbecilic clown Dario Fo (1997), and our own American queen of race hysteria, Toni Morrison (1993). One could argue that the distinction granted this year by the Norwegians to the Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, given the Peace Prize for his imposition of an unjust constitution on suffering Kosovo, was equally harmless.