An announcement of the Nobel Prize for literature is almost necessarily accompanied by columns listing those distinguished writers who were passed over, as well as more than a few clunkers who were not. As for the roster of the omitted, since the Russians Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) were both alive when the award was established in 1901, they are obvious examples of neglect. But one may include such other lasting authors slighted for the Nobel, like Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), James Joyce, Marcel Proust, all the French surrealist poets (some of whom would have turned the prize down as a dishonorable badge of bourgeois approval), and, scandalously, Jorgé Luis Borges.
The latter omission points up the neglect of great Spanish writers until the Latin American “boom.” The choice of the now forgotten Jacinto Benavente, a Spanish playwright who won in 1922, hardly shines as an example of literary judgment, although the excellent Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral won in 1945 and the exiled Spanish Republican Juan Ramón Jiménez (who resided in Puerto Rico) in 1956. Jiménez was one of only two representatives of the great “generations of 1898 and 1927” from Spain to receive a Nobel, followed by Vicente Aleixandre in 1977. The whole apparatus of the Nobel Prizes has been morally tainted by its political compliments to American-hating leftists, most notoriously in 1971 when it was awarded to Pablo Neruda, memorialist in verse of Joseph Stalin.
As Lee Smith points out, Mario Vargas Llosa, the well-deserved 2010 winner, did not, in the manner of Gabriel García Márquez, the 1982 laureate, serve as a literary sycophant of Fidel Castro, who silenced the major authors Virgilio Piñera and José Lezama Lima. But no Cuban has ever won the prize, and there were other worthy prospects aside from the deserving Lezama Lima, such as the exiled Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who died in London in 2005.
Then there are writers who died young, before they could be considered for the Nobel Prize. Franz Kafka comes to mind, as does Bruno Schulz and other victims of the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag, like Osip Mandelstam. A recent and famous exemplar of a major talent who died too young is the Chilean-Mexican writer Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003), who has become a worldwide phenomenon in book sales. A snarky note in the Financial Times of May 23-24, 2009, however, describing the cover of his longest work, 2666, alleged that many of its purchasers would not “have time to immerse themselves in Bolaño’s 900-page epic.” 2666, issued posthumously in Spanish in 2004 and in English in 2008, brings together a group of foreign literary critics in search of an elusive writer named Archimboldi, allegedly living in Mexico, with deadpan, horrifying accounts of the recent (and continuing) murders of young women in the northern Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez (called Santa Teresa in the novel).