The year 2018 is the first time since the Second World War that the Nobel Prize in Literature will not be awarded. In normal course, the winner would have been revealed on the Thursday of the announcement week, which, in this case, would have been October 4.
After allegations of corruption and sexual assault rocked the Swedish Academy, the organisation that awards the prize, this years Literature Nobel has been postponed to 2019, when, apparently, two laureates will be recognised. Even as Nobel Prizes in other categories are awarded this year, this glaring omission presents an opportunity to shine a light on another form of gender injustice that has been perpetuated by the prize.
In the 110 times that the award has recognised 114 laureates, only 14 have been women, the earliest in 1909 and the last, in 2015. While some recent winners such as Toni Morrison and Alice Munro remain as popular as when they won the prize, others have been forgotten in the literary tradition of the past century. Here then are the 14 women laureates of the Nobel Prize in Literature in their own words, through speeches and lectures that they delivered while accepting the prize.
Selma Lagerlöf (1909)
“In appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterise her writings.”
Selma Lagerlöf’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at Grand Hôtel, Stockholm, December 10, 1909
Anyone who has ever sat in a train as it rushes through a dark night will know that sometimes there are long minutes when the coaches slide smoothly along without so much as a shudder. All rustle and bustle cease and the sound of the wheels becomes a soothing, peaceful melody. The coaches no longer seem to run on rails and sleepers but glide into space. Well, that is how it was as I sat there and thought how much I should like to see my old father again. So light and soundless was the movement of the train that I could hardly imagine I was on this earth. And so I began to daydream: “Just think, if I were going to meet Father in Paradise! I seem to have heard of such things happening to other people – why, then, not to myself?” The train went gliding on but it had a long way to go yet, and my thoughts raced ahead of it. Father will certainly be sitting in a rocking chair on a veranda, with a garden full of sunshine and flowers and birds in front of him. He will be reading Fritjofs saga, of course, but when he sees me he will put down his book, push his spectacles high up on his forehead, and get up and walk toward me. He will say, “Good day, my daughter, I am very glad to see you”, or “Why, you are here, and how are you, my child”, just as he always used to do.
He will settle again in his rocking chair and only then begin to wonder why I have come to see him. “You are sure there is nothing amiss?” he will ask suddenly. “No, Father, all is well”, I will reply. But then, just as I am about to break my news to him, I will decide to keep it back just a while longer and try the indirect approach. “I have come to ask you for advice, Father,” I will say, “for I am very heavily in debt.”
“I am afraid you will not get much help from me in this matter”, Father will reply. “One may well say of this place that, like the old estates in our Värmland, it has everything except money.”
“Ah, but it is not money that I owe, Father.” “But that’s even worse”, Father will say. “Begin right at the beginning, daughter.”
“It is not too much to ask that you should help, Father, for it was all your fault right from the beginning. Do you remember how you used to play the piano and sing Bellman’s songs to us children and how, at least twice every winter, you would let us read Tegnér and Runeberg and Andersen? It was then that I first fell into debt. Father, how shall I ever repay them for teaching me to love fairy tales and sagas of heroes, the land we live in and all of our human life, in all its wretchedness and glory?”
Father will straighten up in his rocking chair and a wonderful look will come into his eyes. “I am glad that I got you into this debt”, he will say. “Yes, you may be right, Father, but then remember that that is not all of it. Think how many creditors I have. Think of those poor, homeless vagabonds who used to travel up and down Värmland in your youth, playing the fool and singing all those songs. What do I not owe to them, to their mischief and mad pranks! And the old men and women sitting in their small grey cottages as one came out of the forest, telling me wonderful stories of water-sprites and trolls and enchanted maidens lured into the mountains. It was they who taught me that there is poetry in hard rocks and black forests. And think, Father, of all those pale, hollow-cheeked monks and nuns in their dark cloisters, the visions they saw and the voices they heard. I have borrowed from their treasure of legends. And our own peasants who went to Jerusalem – do I owe them nothing for giving me such glorious deeds to write about? And I am in debt not only to people; there is the whole of nature as well. The animals that walk the earth, the birds in the skies, the trees and flowers, they have all told me some of their secrets.”
Grazia Deledda (1926)
“For her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general.”
“While the East Wind Blows” (A short story)
According to an ancient Sardinian legend, the bodies of those who are born on Christmas Eve will never dissolve into dust but are preserved until the end of time.
Now this was the natural subject of conversation in the house of the rich peasant Diddinu Frau, called Zio (uncle) Diddinu. His daughter’s fiancé, Predu Tasca, raised the objection:
“But for what purpose? To what use is our body to us when we are dead?”
“Well,” answered the peasant, “isn’t it a divine grace not to be reduced to ashes? And when we arrive at the universal judgment, would it not be wonderful to find one’s body intact?”
“Pooh, would it really be that great?” Predu replied, looking very skeptical.
“Listen, my son-in-law,” the peasant exclaimed, “the topic is a good one. Shall we sing about it tonight?”
We ought to be aware that Uncle Diddinu was an extemporaneous poet, like his father had been and his grandfather, too. Joyfully he seized every opportunity to propose a contest of extemporaneous song, especially whenever there were poets around who were less skillful than himself.
“Oh,” Maria Franzisca observed, making herself as graceful as she could since her beloved looked at her, “the argument is a little gloomy.”
(From the collection I giuochi della vita (1905), translated by Anders Hallengren. Read the whole story here.)
Presentation speech by Henrik Schück, President of the Nobel Foundation
Certainly Grazia Deledda feels tied by strong bonds to the past, to the history of her people. But she also knows how to live in and respond to her own times. Although she lacks interest in theories, she has a great deal of interest in every aspect of human life. She writes in a letter, “Our great anguish is life’s slow death. This is why we must try to slow life down, to intensify it, thus giving it the richest possible meaning. One must try to live above one’s life, as a cloud above the sea.” Precisely because life seems so rich and admirable to her, she has never taken sides in the political, social, or literary controversies of the day. She has loved man more than theories and has lived her own quiet life far from the world’s uproar. “Destiny”, she writes in another letter, “caused me to be born in the heart of lonely Sardinia. But even if I had been born in Rome or Stockholm, I should not have been different. I should have always been what I am – a soul which becomes impassioned about life’s problems and which lucidly perceives men as they are, while still believing that they could be better and that no one else but themselves prevents them from achieving God’s reign on earth. Everything is hatred, blood, and pain; but, perhaps, everything will be conquered one day by means of love and good will.”
Sigrid Undset (1928)
“Principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages.”
Sigrid Undset’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at Grand Hôtel, Stockholm, December 10, 1928
I write more readily than I speak and I am especially reluctant to talk about myself. Instead, I wish to offer a salute to Sweden. Before I left for Sweden, a party was given for me – that is to say, not strictly speaking for me but because I was going to leave for Sweden – and everybody, the President of the Council of Ministers of Norway as well as my personal friends, asked me to give regards to Sweden. After all, the people of our peninsula form a distinct part of the world. Our forests and our mountains run into each other and our rivers carry their waters from one country to the other. Our houses in Norway resemble those in Sweden. God be praised! We have always lived in a great number of small, private dwellings spread all over our countries. Modern technology has not yet completely intruded on the humanity of the North.
Presentation speech by Per Hallström, Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy
In so far as the inner life is concerned, her work can hardly be criticised. Intimately combined with the consciousness of the nation, in her depiction, honour retains all the rigour and all the weight that it had for the chevaliers and great landowners of the fourteenth century. The demands of honour are clearly stated, and the conflicts it creates are worked out regardless of their brutal consequences. Religious life is described with startling truth. Under Sigrid Undset’s pen it does not become a continuous holiday of the mind, penetrating and dominating human nature; it remains, as in our day, insecure and rebellious, and is often even harsher. Profoundly conscious of the hold of faith on these inexperienced and unpolished souls, the author has given it, in the grave hours of existence, an overwhelming power.
Pearl S Buck (1938)
“For her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.”
The Chinese Novel (Nobel Lecture, December 12, 1938)
The instinct which creates the arts is not the same as that which produces art. The creative instinct is, in its final analysis and in its simplest terms, an enormous extra vitality, a super-energy, born inexplicably in an individual, a vitality great beyond all the needs of his own living – an energy which no single life can consume. This energy consumes itself then in creating more life, in the form of music, painting, writing, or whatever is its most natural medium of expression. Nor can the individual keep himself from this process, because only by its full function is he relieved of the burden of this extra and peculiar energy – an energy at once physical and mental, so that all his senses are more alert and more profound than another man’s, and all his brain more sensitive and quickened to that which his senses reveal to him in such abundance that actuality overflows into imagination. It is a process proceeding from within. It is the heightened activity of every cell of his being, which sweeps not only himself, but all human life about him, or in him, in his dreams, into the circle of its activity.
From the product of this activity, art is deducted – but not by him. The process which creates is not the process which deduces the shapes of art. The defining of art, therefore, is a secondary and not a primary process. And when one born for the primary process of creation, as the novelist is, concerns himself with the secondary process, his activity becomes meaningless. When he begins to make shapes and styles and techniques and new schools, then he is like a ship stranded upon a reef whose propeller, whirl wildly as it will, cannot drive the ship onward. Not until the ship is in its element again can it regain its course.
And for the novelist the only element is human life as he finds it in himself or outside himself. The sole test of his work is whether or not his energy is producing more of that life. Are his creatures alive? That is the only question. And who can tell him? Who but those living human beings, the people? Those people are not absorbed in what art is or how it is made-are not, indeed, absorbed in anything very lofty, however good it is. No, they are absorbed only in themselves, in their own hungers and despairs and joys and above all, perhaps, in their own dreams. These are the ones who can really judge the work of the novelist, for they judge by that single test of reality. And the standard of the test is not to be made by the device of art, but by the simple comparison of the reality of what they read, to their own reality.
Gabriella Mistral (1945)
“For her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.”
Gabriela Mistral’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1945
Today Sweden turns toward a distant Latin American country to honour it in the person of one of the many exponents of its culture. It would have pleased the cosmopolitan spirit of Alfred Nobel to extend the scope of his protectorate of civilization by including within its radius the southern hemisphere of the American continent. As a daughter of Chilean democracy, I am moved to have before me a representative of the Swedish democratic tradition, a tradition whose originality consists in perpetually renewing itself within the framework of the most valuable creations of society. The admirable work of freeing a tradition from deadwood while conserving intact the core of the old virtues, the acceptance of the present and the anticipation of the future, these are what we call Sweden, and these achievements are an honour to Europe and an inspiring example for the American continent.
At this moment, by an undeserved stroke of fortune, I am the direct voice of the poets of my race and the indirect voice for the noble Spanish and Portuguese tongues. Both rejoice to have been invited to this festival of Nordic life with its tradition of centuries of folklore and poetry.
Presentation speech by Hjalmar Gullberg, Member of the Swedish Academy
In a small village in the Elquis valley, several decades ago, was born a future schoolteacher named Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga. Godoy was her father’s name, Alcayaga her mother’s; both were of Basque origin. Her father, who had been a schoolteacher, improvised verses with ease. His talent seems to have been mixed with the anxiety and the instability common to poets. He left his family when his daughter, for whom he had made a small garden, was still a child. Her beautiful mother, who was to live a long time, has said that sometimes she discovered her lonely little daughter engaged in intimate conversations with the birds and the flowers of the garden. According to one version of the legend, she was expelled from school. Apparently she was considered too stupid for teaching hours to be wasted on her. Yet she taught herself by her own methods, educating herself to the extent that she became a teacher in the small village school of Cantera. There her destiny was fulfilled at the age of twenty, when a passionate love arose between her and a railroad employee.
We know little of their story. We know only that he betrayed her. One day in November, 1909, he fatally shot himself in the head. The young girl was seized with boundless despair. Like Job, she lifted her cry to the Heaven that had allowed this. From the lost valley in the barren, scorched mountains of Chile a voice arose, and far around men heard it. A banal tragedy of everyday life lost its private character and entered into universal literature. Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga became Gabriela Mistral. The little provincial schoolteacher, the young colleague of Selma Lagerlöf of Mårbacka, was to become the spiritual queen of Latin America.
Nelly Sachs (1966)
“For her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel’s destiny with touching strength.”
Nelly Sachs’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1966
In the summer of 1939 a German girl friend of mine went to Sweden to visit Selma Lagerlöf, to ask her to secure a sanctuary for my mother and myself in that country. Since my youth I had been so fortunate as to exchange letters with Selma Lagerlöf; and it is out of her work that my love for her country grew. The painter-prince Eugen and the novelist helped to save me.
In the spring of 1940, after tortuous months, we arrived in Stockholm. The occupation of Denmark and Norway had already taken place. The great novelist was no more. We breathed the air of freedom without knowing the language or any person. Today, after twenty-six years, I think of what my father used to say on every tenth of December, back in my home town, Berlin: “Now they celebrate the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm.” Thanks to the choice of the Swedish Academy, I am now in the midst of that ceremony. To me a fairy tale seems to have become reality.
Presentation speech by Anders Österling, Member of the Swedish Academy
Nelly Sachs, like so many other German-Jewish writers, suffered the fate of exile. Through Swedish intervention she was saved from persecution and the threat of deportation and was brought to this country. She has since then worked in peace as a refugee on Swedish soil, attaining the maturity and authority that are now confirmed by the Nobel Prize. In recent years she has been acclaimed in the German world as a writer of convincing worth and irresistible sincerity. With moving intensity of feeling she has given voice to the worldwide tragedy of the Jewish people, which she has expressed in lyrical laments of painful beauty and in dramatic legends. Her symbolic language boldly combines an inspired modern idiom with echoes of ancient biblical poetry. Identifying herself totally with the faith and ritual mysticism of her people, Miss Sachs has created a world of imagery which does not shun the terrible truth of the extermination camps and the corpse factories, but which, at the same time, rises above all hatred of the persecutors, merely revealing a genuine sorrow at man’s debasement.
Nadine Gordimer (1991)
“Who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity.”
Writing and being (Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1991)
In repressive regimes anywhere – whether in what was the Soviet bloc, Latin America, Africa, China – most imprisoned writers have been shut away for their activities as citizens striving for liberation against the oppression of the general society to which they belong. Others have been condemned by repressive regimes for serving society by writing as well as they can; for this aesthetic venture of ours becomes subversive when the shameful secrets of our times are explored deeply, with the artist’s rebellious integrity to the state of being manifest in life around her or him; then the writer’s themes and characters inevitably are formed by the pressures and distortions of that society as the life of the fisherman is determined by the power of the sea.
There is a paradox. In retaining this integrity, the writer sometimes must risk both the state’s indictment of treason, and the liberation forces’ complaint of lack of blind commitment. As a human being, no writer can stoop to the lie of Manichean “balance”. The devil always has lead in his shoes, when placed on his side of the scale. Yet, to paraphrase coarsely Márquez’s dictum given by him both as a writer and a fighter for justice, the writer must take the right to explore, warts and all, both the enemy and the beloved comrade in arms, since only a try for the truth makes sense of being, only a try for the truth edges towards justice just ahead of Yeats’s beast slouching to be born. In literature, from life,
we page through each other’s faces
we read each looking eye
...It has taken lives to be able to do so.
These are the words of the South African poet and fighter for justice and peace in our country, Mongane Serote.
The writer is of service to humankind only insofar as the writer uses the word even against his or her own loyalties, trusts the state of being, as it is revealed, to hold somewhere in its complexity filaments of the cord of truth, able to be bound together, here and there, in art: trusts the state of being to yield somewhere fragmentary phrases of truth, which is the final word of words, never changed by our stumbling efforts to spell it out and write it down, never changed by lies, by semantic sophistry, by the dirtying of the word for the purposes of racism, sexism, prejudice, domination, the glorification of destruction, the curses and the praise-songs.
Toni Morrison (1993)
“Who in novels characterised by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
Nobel Lecture December 7, 1993
The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.
The conventional wisdom of the Tower of Babel story is that the collapse was a misfortune. That it was the distraction, or the weight of many languages that precipitated the tower’s failed architecture. That one monolithic language would have expedited the building and heaven would have been reached. Whose heaven, she wonders? And what kind? Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives period. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life.
Wislawa Szymborska (1996)
“For poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.”
The poet and the world (Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1996)
I sometimes dream of situations that can’t possibly come true. I audaciously imagine, for example, that I get a chance to chat with the Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors. I would bow very deeply before him, because he is, after all, one of the greatest poets, for me at least. That done, I would grab his hand. “‘There’s nothing new under the sun’: that’s what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn’t read your poem. And that cypress that you’re sitting under hasn’t been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same. And Ecclesiastes, I’d also like to ask you what new thing under the sun you’re planning to work on now? A further supplement to the thoughts you’ve already expressed? Or maybe you’re tempted to contradict some of them now? In your earlier work you mentioned joy – so what if it’s fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? I doubt you’ll say, ‘I’ve written everything down, I’ve got nothing left to add.’ There’s no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself.”
The world – whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world – it is astonishing.
But “astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we’ve grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn’t based on comparison with something else.
Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events” … But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.
It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.
Elfriede Jelinek (2004)
“For her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.”
Sidelined (Nobel Lecture, December 7, 2004)
Is writing the gift of curling up, of curling up with reality? One would so love to curl up, of course, but what happens to me then? What happens to those, who don’t really know reality at all? It’s so very dishevelled. No comb, that could smooth it down. The writers run through it and despairingly gather together their hair into a style, which promptly haunts them at night. Something’s wrong with the way one looks. The beautifully piled up hair can be chased out of its home of dreams again, but can anyway no longer be tamed. Or hangs limp once more, a veil before a face, no sooner than it could finally be subdued. Or stands involuntarily on end in horror at what is constantly happening. It simply won’t be tidied up. It doesn’t want to. No matter how often one runs the comb with the couple of broken off teeth through it – it just doesn’t. Something is even less right than before. The writing, that deals with what happens, runs through one’s fingers like the time, and not only the time, during which it was written, during which life stopped. No one has missed anything, if life stopped. Not the one living and not dead time, and the one who is dead not at all. When one was still writing, time found its way into the work of other writers. Since it is time, it can do everything at once: find its way into one’s own work and simultaneously into the work of others, blow into the tousled hairstyles of others like a fresh, even if malign wind, which has risen suddenly and unexpectedly from the direction of reality.
Once something has risen, then perhaps it doesn’t lie down again so quickly. The angry wind blows and sweeps everything with it. And it sweeps everything away, no matter where, but never back to this reality, which is supposed to be represented. Everywhere, except there. Reality is what gets under the hair, under the skirts and just that: sweeps them away and into something else. How can the writer know reality, if it is that which gets into him and sweeps him away, forever onto the sidelines. From there, on the one hand, he can see better, on the other he himself cannot remain on the way of reality. There is no place for him there. His place is always outside. Only what he says from the outside can be taken up inside, and that because he speaks ambiguities. And then there are already two who fit, two whose faces are right, who warn, that nothing is happening, two who construe it in different directions, reach out to the inadequate grounds, which have long ago broken off like the fangs of the comb. Either or. True or false. It had to happen sooner or later, since the ground as building ground was quite inadequate.
Doris Lessing (2007)
“That epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”
On not winning the Nobel Prize (Nobel Lecture, December 7, 2007)
I have a friend from Zimbabwe, a black writer. He taught himself to read from the labels on jam jars, the labels on preserved fruit cans. He was brought up in an area I have driven through, an area for rural blacks. The earth is grit and gravel, there are low sparse bushes. The huts are poor, nothing like the well cared-for huts of the better off. A school – but like one I have described. He found a discarded children’s encyclopaedia on a rubbish heap and taught himself from that.
On Independence in 1980 there was a group of good writers in Zimbabwe, truly a nest of singing birds. They were bred in old Southern Rhodesia, under the whites – the mission schools, the better schools. Writers are not made in Zimbabwe. Not easily, not under Mugabe.
All the writers travelled a difficult road to literacy, let alone to becoming writers. I would say learning to read from the printed labels on jam jars and discarded encyclopaedias was not uncommon. And we are talking about people hungering for standards of education beyond them, living in huts with many children – an overworked mother, a fight for food and clothing.
Yet despite these difficulties, writers came into being. And we should also remember that this was Zimbabwe, conquered less than a hundred years before. The grandparents of these people might have been storytellers working in the oral tradition. In one or two generations there was the transition from stories remembered and passed on, to print, to books. What an achievement.
Books, literally wrested from rubbish heaps and the detritus of the white man’s world. But a sheaf of paper is one thing, a published book quite another. I have had several accounts sent to me of the publishing scene in Africa. Even in more privileged places like North Africa, with its different tradition, to talk of a publishing scene is a dream of possibilities.
Here I am talking about books never written, writers that could not make it because the publishers are not there. Voices unheard. It is not possible to estimate this great waste of talent, of potential. But even before that stage of a book’s creation which demands a publisher, an advance, encouragement, there is something else lacking.
Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, “Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?” Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas – inspiration.
If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn.
Herta Müller (2009)
“Who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”
Every word knows something of a vicious circle (Nobel Lecture, December 7, 2009)
My grandmother kept two photos of her son Matz far back in a drawer: a wedding photo and a death photo. The wedding picture shows a bride in white, taller than he by a hand, thin and earnest – a plaster Madonna. On her head was a wreath made of wax that looked like snow-flocked leaves. Next to her was Matz in his Nazi uniform, a soldier instead of a husband, a brideguard instead of a bridegroom. No sooner had he returned to the front, the death photo came. It shows a poor soldier torn to shreds by a mine. The death photo is hand-sized: in the middle of a black field a little gray heap of human remains can be seen resting on a white cloth. Against the black, field the white cloth looks as small as a children’s handkerchief, a white square with a strange design painted in the middle. For my grandmother this photo was a combination, too: on the white handkerchief was a dead Nazi, in her memory was a living son. My grandmother kept this double picture inside her prayer book for all her years. She prayed every day, and her prayers almost certainly had double meanings as well. Acknowledging the break from beloved son to fanatic Nazi, they probably beseeched God to perform the balancing act of loving the son and forgiving the Nazi.
My grandfather had been a soldier in the First World War. He knew what he was talking about when he said, often and embittered, in reference to his son Matz: When the flags start to flutter, common sense slides right into the trumpet. This warning also applied to the following dictatorship, which I experienced. Every day you could see the common sense of the profiteers, both big and little, sliding right into the trumpet. The trumpet I decided not to blow.
As I child, however, I did have to learn to play the accordion – against my will. Because at home we had the red accordion that had belonged to the dead soldier Matz. The straps were much too long for me. To keep them from slipping off my shoulders, the accordion teacher tied them together on my back with a handkerchief.
Can we say that it is precisely the smallest objects – be they trumpets, accordions, or handkerchiefs – which connect the most disparate things in life? That the objects are in orbit and that their deviations reveal a pattern of repetition – a vicious circle, or what we call in German a devil’s circle. We can believe this, but not say it. Still, what can’t be said can be written. Because writing is a silent act, a labor from the head to the hand. The mouth is skipped over. I talked a great deal during the dictatorship, mostly because I decided not to blow the trumpet. Usually my talking led to excruciating consequences. But the writing began in silence, there on the stairs, where I had to come to terms with more than could be said. What was happening could no longer be expressed in speech. At most the external accompaniments, but not the totality of the events themselves. That I could only spell out in my head, voicelessly, within the vicious circle of the words during the act of writing.
Alice Munro (2013)
“Master of the contemporary short story.”
Alice Munro: In her own words (December 7, 2013)
I got interested in reading very early, because a story was read to me, by Hans Christian Andersen, which was The Little Mermaid, and I don’t know if you remember The Little Mermaid, but it’s dreadfully sad. The little mermaid falls in love with this prince, but she cannot marry him, because she is a mermaid. And it’s so sad I can’t tell you the details. But anyway, as soon as I had finished this story I got outside and walked around and around the house where we lived, at the brick house, and I made up a story with a happy ending, because I thought that was due to the little mermaid, and it sort of slipped my mind that it was only made up to be a different story for me, it wasn’t going to go all around the world, but I felt I had done my best, and from now on the little mermaid would marry the prince and live happily ever after, which was certainly her desert, because she had done awful things to win the prince’s power, his ease. She had had to change her limbs. She had had to get limbs that ordinary people have and walk, but every step she took, agonizing pain! This is what she was willing to go through, to get the prince. So I thought she deserved more than death on the water. And I didn’t worry about the fact that maybe the rest of the world wouldn’t know the new story, because I felt it had been published once I thought about it. So, there you are. That was an early start, on writing.
I made stories up all the time, I had a long walk to school, and during that walk I would generally make up stories. As I got older the stories would be more and more about myself, as a heroine in some situation or other, and it didn’t bother me that the stories were not going to be published to the world immediately, and I don’t know if I even thought about other people knowing them or reading them. It was about the story itself, generally a very satisfying story from my point of view, with the general idea of the little mermaid’s bravery, that she was clever, that she was in general able to make a better world, because she would jump in there, and have magic powers and things like that.
I never thought of it being important, but I never thought of myself as being anything but a woman, and there were many good stories about little girls and women. After you got maybe into your teens it was more about helping the man to achieve his needs and so on, but when I was a young girl I had no feeling of inferiority at all about being a woman.
Svetlana Alexievich (2015)
“For her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
On the battle lost (Nobel Lecture, December 7, 2015)
It always troubled me that the truth doesn’t fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There’s a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world. Dostoevsky thought that humanity knows much, much more about itself than it has recorded in literature. So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history. I am often told, even now, that what I write isn’t literature, it’s a document. What is literature today? Who can answer that question? We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. Everything overflows its banks: music, painting – even words in documents escape the boundaries of the document. There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other. Witnesses are not impartial. In telling a story, humans create, they wrestle time like a sculptor does marble. They are actors and creators.
I’m interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven’t had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened. We are afraid of doing that, we’re not up to coping with our past. In Dostoevsky’s Demons, Shatov says to Stavrogin at the beginning of their conversation: “We are two creatures who have met in boundless infinity...for the last time in the world. So drop that tone and speak like a human being. At least once, speak with a human voice.”
That is more or less how my conversations with my protagonists begin. People speak from their own time, of course, they can’t speak out of a void. But it is difficult to reach the human soul, the path is littered with television and newspapers, and the superstitions of the century, its biases, its deceptions.