Wednesday 24 February 2016

Writers En-NOBEL-ed... and Quite Forgotten you may be aware – or not –, I’m a more or less regular contributor to Aloi’s blog Read the Nobels and in January I also joined her annual event Read the Nobels 2016 (which is still open for sign-up, by the way!). Both challenge readers and bloggers like me to explore the vast variety of works written by recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature and I ever again seize the opportunity to dig deep into the treasure trove of their books. It’s one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, and yet, many writer names must be called insider tips rather than household names. Why? Is it a matter of changed tastes? Is it their sheer number? Is it their assumed literary profundity that discourages readers?

The Nobel Prize in Literature was first awarded in 1901, thus 115 years ago and it’s only natural that literary tastes have changed considerably over such a long period of time. This probably accounts for the fact that the names of many of the early winners have fallen into oblivion, above all outside their countries or sprachraum of origin. The worldwide fame of some like Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905), Rudyard Kipling (1907), William Butler Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925), Thomas Mann (1929), John Galsworthy (1932), or Pearl S. Buck (1938) outlasted time, but what about the others? Be honest: do the names of Henrik Pontoppidan (1917), Władysław S. Reymont (1924) or Frans E. Sillanpää (1939) ring a bell with you? Not to mention all the poets, dramatists, and writers of non-fiction who received the Nobel Prize in Literature before World War II.

Of course, there will be few who can produce from memory the complete list of laureates and some more who at least will recognise the name of a less famous one when they read it somewhere. After all, in the long history of the Nobel Prize the Swedish Academy honoured altogether 112 writers for their “outstanding work in an ideal(istic) direction”. Did you know that they were so many? How many of them can you name? Four, five,… ten? If you can make a list of more than ten, it’s an impressive achievement considering that the renown of quite some authors has faded or never been particularly high in the first place. Moreover, the greater part of the Nobelists whom you remember will probably be more recent ones like Alice Munro (2013), Mario Vargas Llosa (2010), Doris Lessing (2007), Orhan Pamuk (2006), J. M. Coetzee (2003), or V. S. Naipaul (2001).

How about Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich? Her name has escaped you although she received her Nobel Prize in Literature in Stockholm only in December 2015 – less than three months ago? And do you remember Patrick Modiano who was awarded it in 2014? Or Mo Yan (2012), Tomas Tranströmer (2011), Herta Müller (2009), Elfriede Jelinek (2004), Gao Xingjian (2000)? Their names sound familiar to you, but you never read any of their works and however much you rack your brains you can't even think of one of their masterpieces? This may be because on the international level none of them has been much noted as a writer until they were announced winners of the Nobel Prize and I dare say that more than one of them will fade back into obscurity again as time progresses because their writings either aren’t good enough to last or just period pieces.

As a matter of fact, not all writers that the Swedish Academy judged worthy of getting the Nobel Prize in Literature are literary heavyweights and profound thinkers like Albert Camus (1957) and Jean-Paul Sartre (who refused the 1964 award!). Having by now read and reviewed the works of 36 different Nobelists (»»» see my post for Read the Nobels with the complete list of laureates and the links to my own book reviews here on Edith's Miscellany and on Lagraziana’s Kalliopeion), I’d say that most of them are less difficult to read than people expect. Halldor K. Laxness (1955), S. Y. Agnon (1966) and Kertész Imre (2002), for instance, have turned out to have written intriguing as well as enjoyable reads. All it needs is the courage to give them a chance.

In this spirit, let's explore together the works of the famous and forgotten laureates of the Nobel Prize in Literature! And maybe you even feel like sharing your reviews with us on Read the Nobels.


  1. I really have not been disappointed by any of the "famous and forgotten" Nobel laureates whose work I have read. And some of the early winners have proven to be remarkable - Grazia Deledda, for example. Reymont's The Peasants is supposed to be astonishing; I even have a copy, but it's so huge that I may have to await another spark of interest to flash before I commit to it.

    1. I agree that among the early laureates there are some very remarkable writers although I haven't yet reviewed too many of their works - mainly because I couldn't find English translations to present here.

      At least for the German-language authors Gerhart Hauptmann (1912), Carl Spitteler (1919), and Thomas Mann I can say that their works keep being listed in our literary canon (Theodore Mommsen is a historian known almost exclusively to historians)... The same goes for the Italians Grazia Deledda and Luigi Pirandello in Italy (I reviewed a book of each). I too have an e-edition of The Peasants by W. S. Reymont ready to read when I'm less busy. The number of pages alone suffices to inspire awe!

  2. I'm finding a lot of misconceptions surrounding Nobel Prize for Lit books in general as people comment on my blog/twitter... they're classics, they difficult to read (as you point out), or they're just unknown or obscure. It's too bad that because these authors seem intimidating to most since I;m finding there seems to be something for everyone! Thanks for this wonderful post, Edith!

    1. It's true that there are many misunderstandings about the Nobel Prize in Literature - that following the wording of the will of Alfred Nobel isn't primarily a literary award after all. I might write something about it in another feature later this year.

      I hope that at least the one or other reader of this post will be encouraged to read a book of a Nobel laureate because - as you point out - there is something for everyone. I wonder if there were even some who realised that they already read one without knowing ;-)

      Thanks for your comment! And I'm glad that you liked my post.


Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.