The Birdcage Archives

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Svetlana Alexievich Resigns from Russian PEN

Hello Gentle Reader,

Along with thirty other writers (so far) Nobel Laureate in Literature, and chronicler of the Soviet Soul and experience, Svetlana Alexievich has resigned from the Russian PEN central over controversy and criticism of the organization expelling journalist, activist, and political commentator Sergey Parkhomenko from the organization. Alexievich’s statement from January 11th reads as follows [ from The Guardian ]:

“My comment on Parkhomenko’s exclusion [from PEN] can only be my application to leave the Russian PEN, whose founding ideals were cravenly violated. In the perestroika* years we took pride in our PEN but now we are ashamed of it. Russian writers acted as subserviently and outrageously only during the Stalinist period. But Putin will go, whereas this shameful page from the history of PEN will stay. And the names will stay, too. We now live through times when we cannot win over evil, we are powerless before the ‘red man’. But he cannot stop time. I believe in that.”

* perestroika would refer to the beginning of Gorbachev’s thawing polices and restricting and reform measures.  

Svetlana Alexievich is not the first writer to publish her resignation letter online. Many other writes have also, publicly denounced the organization, and its inability to follow the mandate of the PEN Center’s values, in the promotion and maintenance of basic human rights when it comes to freedom of expression, such as writing. One of Russia’s most widely read and popular writers Boris Akunin, has also resigned from the organization. Akunin states the Russian center is no longer acting in agreeance with the other network of PEN centers, and has failed in its mission to protect the rights of freedom of expression and free speech; Akunin would go on to state the centre has failed to defend persecuted writers, like Sergey Parkhomenko.

The Russian PEN centre has defended its move to expel Sergey Parkhomenko from its organization, due to his ‘provocative activity,’ and ‘for trying to destroy the organization from within.’ Sergey Parkhomenko believes his expulsion from the organization is politically motivated because he has criticized the organization for not defending the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov who is serving a twenty year prison sentence because of ‘terrorist activity,’ which he was convicted of in a Russian court.  Oleg Sentsov was found guilty of attempting to commit arson by setting political party offices on fire in the Crimea capital; as well as attempting to blow up a statue of Lenin. The ruling was heavily criticized by international organizations, such as amnesty international, who declared the trial a: ‘redolent of Stalinist-era show trial.’ Oleg Sentsov has apparently spent three years in a Russian prison, and as of last year, is now housed in a Siberian penal colony – which has no ringing inclination of Soviet era judicial proceedings and punishments at all.

This is not the first time Sergey Parkhomenko has found himself on the wrong side of the political argument. In two-thousand and eleven the journalist was instrumental in Russia protest movements, which challenged Vladimir Putin’s third term as president. Sergey Parkhomenko would also participate in the: “Ukraine – Russia: A Dialogue,” conference organized by Ukrainian-civil society organizations and Mikhail Khodorkovsky (a noted enemy of Putin), where Ukrainian and Russian intellectuals, journalist, writers and politicians would try to reach a resolution for the Crimea annexation.

In her Nobel Lecture Svetlana Alexievich stated:

“Russia chose to be strong over worthy.”

With recent news reports, articles, opinion pieces—and now this; it can be certainly be concluded that Svetlana Alexievich is correct, in how Russia is currently defining itself on the world stage, and displaying its strength.

“A time full of hope has been replaced by a time of fear.”

This is where the world and Russia now currently sis: in an ever perplexing state of purgatory and body building show of muscle flexing. No one is awing at the marvel of these political powers. Rather they are ashamed and afraid of what happens when flexing turns into deliberate and violent force. Where does: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sit? They must be terrified of the Siberian tiger stalking about next door. Estonia itself survived a 2007 cyber terrorist attack, which resulted in civil unrest, and unfortunately the Russian minority would suffer the most, with arrest and assaults by others. Now though they are on the teeth’s edge, as the Siberian tiger lurks just over the horizon, now through licking its wounds, its eyes blaze with a self-assured and blind red past tinted with the roses of nostalgia. If the Baltics are surely uncomfortable, then Eastern Europe must feel the ground shake. Some are perhaps too disorganized to create a united front to dispel any attempts at appropriation; while others will strike back until they are dead, before they are consumed once again under the ruby chains of a greater power.

Yet, Alexievich does leave defiant hope in her parting words with Russia PEN:

“But Putin will go, whereas this shameful page from the history of PEN will stay. And the names will stay, too. We now live through times when we cannot win over evil, we are powerless before the ‘red man’. But he cannot stop time. I believe in that.”

Though the present is lacking in any glimmer or shred of hope; time has proven to be a cruel master of the wheel, and it crushes obsolete ideas beneath it, without looking back. The battle maybe lost today; but war is time immemorial when it comes to ideas, rights and ideals; and on that front only time reserves the ability to ground up the inefficient or insubstantial into dust in its mortar and pestle.

Edit—[ January 24th 2017 ] 

The Plot Thickens my Dear Gentle Reader. Russia PEN has recently claimed that Svetlana Alexievich’s resignation from the organization is absurd, as she did not belong to the organization in the first place.

In a statement to the American PEN Centre, the Russian PEN did its best to mitigate and extinguish the criticism the Russian Centre has received due to the protests of authors, who have resigned, over allegations that the Russian branch of the international organization, has declined defending individuals and their rights to freedom of speech and expression. The Russian PEN centre has claimed: only one side of the story has been presented, and would like to clarify and present their own case in their defense.

In their statement, Russian Pen has claimed the dismissal of Sergey Parkhomenko was simply put: disciplinary. In their statement the centre had this to say about the reasons for their decision, and why Sergey Parkhomenko was removed from the organization:

“He appears to be a very rude person, our member colleagues have been constantly suffering from his verbal aggression in the media. When he came to broadcast his view that the honorary president of the Russian PEN and the vice-president of PEN International Mr. Andrey Bitov was a delirious old alcoholic we thought we had to take measures. Mr. Parkhomenko could be sued for libel, but we have opted for a softer decision.”

The centre did not top there in discussing the controversy over Sergey Parkhomenko removal from the organization; it would continue to elucidate on the political situation currently at rise in Ukraine and Russia over the annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine. In doing so, the Russian branch of PEN has taken a strong political stance with regards to the situation:

“Certainly, his case was just a trigger to explode the controversy that had existed in our PEN center for the last couple of years. It’s about whether to remain unbiased in our human rights actions. It’s also a projection of the horrible Russian-Ukrainian warfare which has been going on in our neighboring countries. Mr. Parkhomenko and his supporters leaving the Russian PEN now are of the opinion that the current Russian power is the only source of all misfortunes in Russia and Ukraine. Any criticism of the crimes committed by the Ukrainian regime against oppositional writers and journalists is irrelevant to them, their native Russia being the only evil. However, there have been a few murders and dozens of arrests, beatings and repressions against writers and journalists in Ukraine in the past two years, nothing of the kind happening in Russia. Their discourse is hardly a human rights one but a politically prejudiced one, and this has been the crux of the matter for some time. We admit that the media warfare may be powerful and convincing, but the facts and rational thinking should always be with us to have proper understanding and take the right steps.”

This of course refers to the case of Oleg Sentsov who is currently serving a prison sentence in Siberia because of charges of terrorism; and yet one cannot get past the political allegiances the centre has defined for its self, with regards to the conflict. It explicitly states:

“Mr. Parkhomenko and his supporters leaving the Russian PEN now are of the opinion that the current Russian power is the only source of all misfortunes in Russia and Ukraine. Any criticism of the crimes committed by the Ukrainian regime against oppositional writers and journalists is irrelevant to them, their native Russia being the only evil.”

The statement closed with criticism of Svetlana Alexievich:

“It is also essential to inform you that the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Aleksievich has never been a member of the Russian PEN, so her declaration of leaving it sounds bizarre.”

Svetlana Alexievich refuted the claim she did not belong to the organization by posting a photo of her membership, which dates back to 1995. Alexievich also would continue of her criticism of the Russian PEN centre claiming its allegiances to the Russian government, and propagating ‘new patriotism,’ which has infected Russia:

“That’s the mood today. This so-called ‘new patriotism’ is a frightening phenomenon. I have lost many friends because I don’t support [Russia’s invasion of] Crimea … I’m instantly called a Russophobe, whereas they say of themselves: ‘We are Statalists, we are for Great Russia.’”

Whichever side; whichever case, one chooses to believe, it can be concluded that Russia has mistaken greatness with selective nostalgia. Russia (and Russians) like anyone else will crave stability, and the ability to have and maintain a job, while also having the ability to have a family, as well as raise it and provide for it. It is however a shame that an organization which exists to defend fundamental freedoms, such as: freedom of speech and expression; would align itself within political perspectives, which bring into question the ethics and moral ability, the organization has  in executing its own mandate.

Jennifer Clement, the current President of PEN International, delivered a speech at Oxfam Novib/PEN Awards, which she praises the dissident writers, and criticizes the current political atmosphere within Russia and its ideological stance. She began by quoting Anna Politkovskaya, the assassinated Russian journalist, who was highly critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin; and would finish off with support for those writers who have protested against Russian PEN as well as the jailed filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who Clement ceremoniously petitioned to be set free, before welcoming Mikhail Shishkin to the stage.

At the end of the day Gentle Reader, freedom of expression is a fundamental right of all societies—not just Democratic. To speak, to share our opinion(s) and disagree with them, are the fundamental building blocks of intelligent discussions within a society. It is always with a heavy heart though when the ability to speak is muzzled and gagged, by political ideology. It is then we realize that moving forward, is either stalled or halted; and the future has become all that more unclear. Despite sinking hearts though, they remain with support with the dissident writers, such as: Svetlana Alexievich and company. 

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

For more information about Svetlana Alexievich resignation from Russia PEN and the other writers who have also given their voice in protest, please follow the link below to The Guardian article.

Edit—[ January 24th 2017 ] 

The Russian PEN Centre's statement:

The following is an article from "The Guardian," which discusses Svetlana Alexievich's refute of the centre's statement:

The following link is to Jennifer Clement's speech and noted remark about the situation and controversy surrounding Russian PEN.

Jacob Polley wins 2016 T.S. Eliot Prize

Hello Gentle Reader,

The judges for the 2016 T.S. Eliot Prize described Jacob Polley’s poetry collection: “Jackself,” as a: “Firework of a book.” The poetry collection uses the nursey rhyme “Jack,” to narrate a collection of poems about a mythological and loosely autobiographical English childhood. This is not the first time Jacob Polley has found himself acquainted with the T.S. Eliot Prize. Polley was shortlisted in two-thousand three with his debut collection of poems: “The Brink,” and would return again to the shortlist in two-thousand and twelve with his second collection of poems: “The Havocs.” Since his debut, Jacob Polley has been a noted poetic force in contemporary English poetry.  In two-thousand and four he was one of the twenty poets who were named to be the best poets of the Next Generation of British poetry. But poetry has not been Polley’s sole medium of writing. In two-thousand and ten he has written a novel: Talk of the Town,” which won the Somerset Maugham award.

Ruth Padel who chaired this years judges, would go on to describe “Jackself,” as follows:

“It’s a sort of autobiography, set in a place called Lamanby, but it’s really like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, where everything is strange. His mastery of phrase and rhythm and the control of line, combined with the hurts of childhood and his glee in inventive language, have taken his writing to a new level.”

The T.S. Eliot Prize carries a £20, 000 purse, with the runners up to the award each receiving £1500 dollars. For this the award is noted as being the most coveted poetry award in the United Kingdom. Last year, for the first time the award went to a debut collection called: “Loop of Jade,” by Sarah Howe.

Congratulations to Jacob Polley! May he write more prose work hopefully in the future along with his teaching career and his rising poetic success.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Monday, 16 January 2017

Zhou Youguang, Dies Aged 111

Hello Gentle Reader

The father of the Pinyin—a Romanized version of Chinese; Zhou Youguang has died in Beijing on January 14th at the age of 111. Pinyin was adopted in China sixty years ago. The new form of writing however was not a destruction of the previously ancient language, but rather a new way of exploring and becoming acquainted with the language, and its tens of thousands of characters. The revolutionary language enhancement has increased literacy in China since its adoption, assisted students in learning the language, and has now helped the blind read the language in braille. Recent development however, has seen the language now capable of reaching technological mediums, with the characters appearing on keyboards and cell phones. Its thanks in large part to Pinyin that the Mandarin language was simplified to changing and redeveloping how the language interacted on a global stage. In large part Beijing owes its name to Pinyin, from its original Peking; as well as the infamous communist leader and Dictator Mao Zedong from his original (or traditional) name: Mao Tse-tung. The system would later be adopted by the International Organization for Standardization and the United Nations. Despite this achievement, Zhou Youguang is not a person celebrated in China, for of course political reasons. Zhou Youguang was the oldest political dissident of China, often criticizing the communist regime, but as his life continued, he was struck with the unique ability of invincibility of age and with it a loose tongue to let loose his opinions and views of the situation in China. When asked about concerns about retaliation from the Chinese communist government in 2012, Zhou Youguang remarked: “what are they going to do? Come and take me away?”

Despite his great accomplishment of creating Pinyin, Zhou Youguang was not a linguist by training. Rather he was a economist, who had a deep love and interest in linguistics, the Mandarin language, and lexicography. Yet these interests would appear to save his life, as Mao Zedong despised economists – especially those who had been trained or worked in the United States; where ironically enough Zhou Youguang had worked during World War II, and the Sino-Japanese war. But this was not the only strike working against Youguang either, his father was an official during the Qing dynasty (the last Imperial dynasty of China before the communists took control and maintain it). Yet it was a chance meeting and conscription by the Chinese government to re-work the Mandarin language, which changed Youguang’s fate and saved his life from imprisonment. Despite the conscription, Zhou Youguang mainted his work with language and writing was amateur at best; this was sloughed aside as he was told “Everyone is an amateur.” Yet from there Zhou Youguang would become instrumental in the redevelopment of Mandarin and how it is relayed both in script and in verbal capacity. The entire Pinyin system took three years to create.

Despite this marvelous achievement, Zhou Youguang was not immune to political upheavel, specifically speaking The Cultural Revolution. Mao Zedong would define Zhou Youguang as a reactionary academic, and he was sentenced to a labour camp where he would work the rice fields in northern China. He would spend two years in that agricultural hell of re-education, before returning to his home. Upon returning though, it was back to work for Youguang, as he would continue to write; and in his lifetime he would write forty books, and even help oversee the translation of the Encyclopedia Britannica into Mandarin. Despite these monumental accomplishments, many of Zhou Youguang are banned in China, and he remains cultural insignificant officially in China, and has been left unknown and obscure.

Rest in Peace Zhou Youguang.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always

Stay Well Read

M. Mary 

Murakami News

Hello Gentle Reader,

On a recent google search streak of Haruki Murakami, the writer appeared three different times in the news. For a large part for great positive announcements; while another in a more apathetic if albeit humorous tone. The reasons for the recent Murakami searches are simply personal predilections on my part; though I will say, they came around during a recent discussion of the compare and contrast debate of Haruki Murakami and his senior Kenzaburo Oe. There has not been much love lost between Haruki Murakami and Kenzaburo Oe, who has been a vocal critic about the decline of Japanese literature, which he stated has become too: ‘Murakami Centered.’ Though this is not a vocal criticism against Murakami, it is safe to presume that the two writes differ greatly in their perspective of Japanese literature, and its future. For example, Kenzaburo Oe, is quite a difficult writer to translate. His work is intricate and deeply Japanese, and apparently is even quite difficult to understand or comprehend in the native language. In this sense, Kenzaburo Oe, would best be considered a ‘modernist,’ writer—though quite removed from his own predecessors: Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima. Oe in fact had a complicated relationship with Mishima. Still Kenzaburo Oe is noted for his deeply introspective novels, in which hope and despair equally black each other out. Yet, because of his continual experimentation with style and form, Kenzaburo Oe is considered a intellectual writer (not an insult) and highly inaccessible; in which he has few readers. On the contrary, Haruki Murakami is a publishing pop star of Japan’s literary community. He openly has used pop culture motifs in his work, and has made no qualm about distancing himself away from the traditional literary aspect of Japanese culture and his rich literary history. Murakami is noted for being easily translatable into other languages – as he has quite a readership in the English language; this cannot be denied as part of the Murakami appeal for his publishers both in Japan and abroad, as he is exotic enough to attract curious readers, but familiar enough he won’t alienate any readers of an alien language. With Murakami one can expect aimless narrator, cats, disappearing women, jazz and spaghetti. Of the two writers though, Murakami is the most accessible by his themes, but also because of his highly influenced westernized literary motifs. In this sense Haruki Murakami is the ‘post-modernist,’ shadow to his successors like Kenzaburo Oe; in which he discusses the globalized suburbia of Japan today, where you can have sushi and spaghetti. On a personal note, neither Kenzaburo Oe nor Haruki Murakami, are all that appealing to me as writers. I find Kenzaburo Oe: slow, repetitious, recyclable, intensely personal, and highly inaccessible. Despite attempting to read: “Somersault,” over ten years ago, and giving up, it still has left a nasty taste in my mouth. Whereas Haruki Murakami is light and accessible, his later oeuvre appears to be a rehash and an attempt to continue to support he received from his earlier novels. In this sense, on novel summarizes them all. His work is too similar with itself that it becomes self-absorbed, and one can see the perspective of easily marketable criticism is not without justifications.

Yet Haruki Murakami’s international appeal continues to hold strong.

[ I ]  

Haruki Murakami recently won The Hans Christian Andersen Award for 2016. Previous winners include: Salman Rushdie, J. K. Rowling and Paulo Coelho. The adjudicators for the award, praised Haruki Murakami’s imaginative prose and his global perspective, in which is narrative work is in a similar succession of Hans Christian Anderson. In winning the award Murakami will receive $500,000 Danish Krone (DKK) or roughly: $72, 000 dollars (American), along with a statue and a diploma.

[ II ]

Haruki Murakami’s influence is contained strictly in the literary world. His influence has now extended into inspiration for television, music and now video games. “Memoranda,” is described a ‘surreal adventure,’ video game. A independent developed and published point and click video game. The lead developer Sahand Saedi is noted to have kept a stack of Murakami books next to his bedside, and when encountered blocks and challenges in in the games aspects, be it a puzzle or the story; he would pick up a book from his bedside table and read a random passage, to seek inspiration. ‘Memoranda,’ itself centres around a young woman who has lost her memory in a European inspired town, she uses sticky notes (hence the title Memoranda) to remind herself about important aspects. Now the video games story itself evokes no specific Murakami novel or story; but it does seek to evoke a similar feeling of disquiet. As Sahand Saedi explains [ from ‘The Verge,’]

‘“Most of the short stories by Murakami happen in a very calm and realistic setting and the introduction of a strange and unexpected character or a small event will break the atmosphere and change everything. Suspense and fright are very clear elements that have been ingrained in my mind while reading Murakami’s stories,” Saedi explains. “These feelings, and also Murakami’s knowledge about music and many aspects of technology, made me think that a videogame can be made by combining them.”’

‘Memoranda,’ is expected to be released on January 25th. The developers of the game hope that it will entice both fans of Murakami to play, but also people who enjoy a good adventure story to also play the game as well.

Though I rarely play video games myself, the setting, art style, and even the story appear unique and interesting. For those who enjoy independent video games, a good story, and beautiful art work, it appears that ‘Memoranda,’ will most certainly deliver.

[ III ]

Toronto is famous for many aspects: its metropolitan quality; the CN tower, being the rival of both Montreal and Vancouver, a crack smoking mayor – and in many aspects of Canada, for being called ‘the centre of the universe.’ Now though, Toronto is in the paper for a humorous story involving Haruki Murakami. As a recent article with CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) pointed out: ‘Japanese author Haruki Murakami may be known worldwide for novels that straddle the border between the dreamworld and reality.’ But in Toronto, the famous Japanese author is known more for disappearing from bookshelves, and ending up on the black book market, and then he is for his dreamlike and surreal novels and stories, with disappearing women, men who eat cat hearts, and leeches that rain from the sky. The article states that Murakami is the new Kerouac with how his books will disappear and end up in the dark shady black market of contraband books. Though as the owner of the bookstore states, the thieves themselves most likely have never even cracked open a Murakami novel. The reason though Haruki Murakami may have such great appeal towards sticky fingered bookworms, is the high readership amongst millennials. Despite the slight satirical hilarity of the books going missing, the issue still persists, book store owners, who operate independent chains who are competing against larger ‘brands,’ and amazon, are starting to feel the pinch. Unfortunately, the police (and I quote the article) are not cracking down on book thieves. Put into perspective though, it’s not always appropriate to call out the Mountie’s for everything . . . horses  may not need gas (and therefore environmentally friendly), they are terrible in traffic. Perhaps though the recent hike in Murakami’s books being stolen and fenced is due to the fact his newest novel is set to be released in Japan in February. Not much is known about the new novel, other than its title: “Kishidancho Goroshi,” or in English (roughly) “Murder of the Knight Commander.” Murakami has only commented on the novel, that the story is very strange.

[ IV ]

Whether one loves Haruki Murakami or views him as a postmodern pop cultural hack, there can be no denying his influence as a writer extends wide to music, video games, pop culture, other writers and other novels who may follow the Murakami formula. He maybe a poster child of publishing success both at home and abroad, and a voice of a listless and generation of people who view they are now stuck in a globalized world of interconnectivity with no meaningful relationship to discerned or discovered; yet he is still admired, loved and appreciated by all. My own opinion of Murakami is indifference at the end of the day. His continual speculation to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, is not something that I support, nor do I think he possess the quality or perspective to deserve the award. Then again others have received the award, despite—in my opinion; not deserving it either. It’s a strange world, and perhaps Murakami understands this better than he is given credit for.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

The following links are refrenced to the news above:

Hans Christian Andersen Award –

Memoranda Video Game –

Murakami’s books being stolen – Original CBC article and a article from The Guardian –

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Ricardo Piglia, Dies Aged 75

Hello Gentle Reader,

On January 6th, Ricardo Piglia had died, at the age of 75; Piglia had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a progressive neurodegenerative disease) in two-thousand and thirteen.

Ricardo Piglia has been one of the most important writers of Argentinan literature for the past fifty years. He was considered a post-boom writer, as his fiction moves away from the rural and mystical landscapes set out by the boom generation, instead Piglia would focus on the postmodernist paranoid fragmentation of society and how its chaotic bombardments assaulted the everyday life of its citizens. His literary career stared in nineteen-sixty seven when he published his first short story collection: “The Invasion,” (La Invasión) this would be followed by three more short story collections and five novels, along with numerous essays and critical analysis. Beyond his writing career though, Piglia is known to have lived in the United States of America, as well as taught Latin American Literature at the University of Princeton; but in two-thousand and eleven would return to Argentina. Ricardo Piglia was often mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, as a great representative of the post-boom generation of writers; but yet much like Antonio Tabucchi (often considered Italo Calvino’s successor), Ricardo Piglia would not receive the award; much like his fellow countryman: Jorge Luis Borges.

Rest in Peace, Ricardo Piglia.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary 

The Nobel Prize: 1966 Nominations

Hello Gentle Reader,            

The nominations for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 have now been released after being kept secret for fifty years. The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 was a unique award as it was shared between two writers: Nelly Sachs and Shmuel Yosef Agnon. Throughout the prizes history, there have only been four occasions where the award had joint recipients: 1904, 1917, 1966, and 1974. In 1965 there was consideration about a joint award between: Mikhail Sholokhov and Anna Akhmatova; but Anders Österling shot down the proposition; claiming that the only characteristics the two writers shared were language; and so Mikhail Sholokhov was the single recipient of the award, while Anna Akhmatova would die March fifth of the following year.

In 1966, the Nobel Committee for the Nobel Prize for Literature had proposed the years laureate should be the Japanese writer: Yasunari Kawabata; but the Swedish Academy however over turned this proposal, and sought other candidates for the years prize. Yasunari Kawabata did receive and  deserved recognition, but would have to wait until 1968.. After rejecting the proposal, the Swedish Academy would now have to discuss, debate and decide the years laureate. The shortlist for the year was as follows:

1.      Yasunari Kawabata
2.      Nelly Sachs/Shmuel Yosef Agnon
3.      Graham Greene
4.      W.H. Auden
5.      Samuel Beckett

The above list was presented by the Nobel Committee Chairman: Anders Österling. Of the list, four writers would go on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Nelly Sachs and Shmuel Yosef Agnon, would share the Nobel in 1966; Yasunari Kawabata would go on to achieve laureate status in 1968; and Samuel Beckett would take the award in 1969. Concerning Samuel Beckett, it has been noted that Anders Österling had reservations about Beckett’s ability to represent the award. Österling felt Beckett’s work were bottomless and nihilistic in their depiction and discussion of human nature, and therefore, not truly holding the ideal quality of the Nobel, with regards to the Literature prize’s ideal mandate.

Nelly Sachs, however, had quite a bit of support from the Swedish Academy, with both: Karl Ragnar Gierow and Erik Lindegren. Both members had previously expressed strong support for the poet. Anders Österling though showed slight hesitation towards the poet. In 1965, when Sachs was once again a forerunner for the award, Österling voiced concern for the choice. He believed her poetry was beautiful and should be highly valued, but was it of any higher class than any other German poet? With this mind Österling stated: “Even before Nelly Sachs, I feel finally the same question, whether her poetry—humanly touching in itself—can alone defend a Nobel Prize.” As a influential member of the Academy, Anders Österling’s words were taken very seriously. But with the assistance of Karl Ragnar Gierow (who first nominated Sachs in 1963), along with Erik Lindegren and Gunnar Ekelöf (who she had helped translate into German), Sachs would have the support needed to be taken seriously.

In 1966, Nelly Sachs was taken very seriously as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Henry Olsson had proposed a dual award to both Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan. The Nobel Committee rejected the notion. Its reasoning: “Sharing the award seeks to distinguish two individually significant efforts in the German lyric poetry. Regarding Celan, the Committee has not, however, able to convince itself that his work would justify the investment.”

With regards to Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan; the two poets were quite close, and their poetry is a great representation of the German language, but also the grief of the Jewish people. A shared award between Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan would have a greater sense of meaning, then the reality of Sachs sharing the prize with Shmuel Yosef Agnon. In fact, Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan, had shared a deep connection with each other, which is expressed in their sixteen year correspondence. Celan had first written to Sachs after reading her poem, ‘Chorus of the Orphans.’ Much like Nelly Sachs had done earlier by writing to Selma Lagerlöf (who would later help Sachs and her mother flee Germany and settle in Sweden), a new and bright friendship had begun to emerge and take hold, with Sachs even referring to Celan as ‘brother,’ and Celan documenting their friendship in his poem, ‘Zürich, The Stork Inn,’ (Zürich, Zum Storchen). Both Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan found kindred spirits with each other and their respective work. During the beginning of their correspondence, Celan was accused of plagiarism by a friend’s widow, and Sachs was embroiled in a dispute with the Finnish-Jewish composer Moses Pergament over a musical adaption of her stage play: Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel.

Paul Celan would never go on to receive the Nobel. He was first nominated in 1964, but was declined as he did not “meet the claims of a high international award,”—which now in hindsight was a poor mistake for the Academy to make; as Paul Celan is now considered of the greatest poets of the 20th century German language. Where now on the contrary of the two writers who shared the award in 1966, Shmuel Yosef Agnon has fallen into relative obscurity; and Nelly Sachs now clings to the shore, while the river of oblivion tugs her into the historical realm of the vague and the forgotten. Perhaps, if the award was shared between Nelly Sachs and her literary soulmate and brother, Paul Celan, she would be better known.

Before receiving the award in 1966, Nelly Sachs had fled Nazi Germany, with the assistance of Selma Lagerlöf, and it was there in Sweden, that Nelly Sachs would move away from her youthful naïve and romantic poems, and would become the fragile bird like women with powerful words. In 1947 she made her ‘second debut,’ with the poetry collection: “In den Wohnungen des Todes,” (“In the Dwellings of Death). After this, Sachs would write continually about the Jewish suffering; the complex relationship of the Jewish people with history and God; and it was then she would begin to attract greater attention in Sweden as a remarkable poet, who composed and conducted the chorus of historical suffering. During this time though, Sachs would also translate the works of many Swedish writers into German such as Ekelöf Thoursie, Gunnar Ekelöf, and Erik Lindegren. By the time the Nobel announcement came around, Sachs would be well known in the Swedish literary scene, and her award came to no surprise. What did though was the fact that it was shared with Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

Shmuel Yosef Agnon is a writer who is known more in niche and select literary groups. When he was awarded the Nobel in 1966, he became famous over night; but just as quick as the flame of fame had caught fire, it was extinguished. As already noted Agnon has all but fallen into relative obscurity, and his work is considered alienating for those not acquainted with Jewish history or culture. This would therefore making Shmuel Yosef Agnon a rather ‘extreme provincial,’ writer; and certainly brings to mind questions of his merit for such a: ‘high international award,’ which Paul Celan was denied. It was of course Anders Österling who was the most adamant of Agnon’s merits and requirement for recognition. Yet this was not the first time Shmuel Yosef Agnon was first nominated. In 1947 Agnon was proposed as a candidate by Professor Hugo Bergmann from the University of Jerusalem. The reception from the Nobel committee was at best, lukewarm. The Committee of the time saw Agnon as being too provincial, and incapable in his literary output to appeal to the greater public. The sentiment did not change, as in 1949, Agnon was once again dismissed. In 1965 though, his fortunes were beginning to change. Anders Österling had resigned from his position as the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, but maintained his position as the Chairman of the Nobel Committee; and in this year, he had German translations of Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s work, and became quite impressed with the writers work. Österling lobbied a great sense of encouragement Agnon’s work, stating he was Israel’s finest language artists at work. 1965 Mikhail Sholokhov would take the award; but Shmuel Yosef Agnon was second on the shortlist. This change in perspective came only after Agnon’s work had been translated into languages for the Academy to read and understand, only then did Agnon’s fortunes change, from the rejected nomination to the winner.

Yet now, Shmuel Yosef Agnon is readily ignored or left unknown to readers. His work as already stated is extremely provincial and culturally alienating to those unacquainted with Jewish history and culture. Future Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, had described Agnon as a good writer, by no means a genius, but a good solid writer; though his work would be lost in translation, as the varying depths of the work were to be seen only via the Hebrew language.

In choosing to award the two writers the Nobel Prize for Literature, Österling defended the decision by stating the award had complied: “two authors from different language regions, but united by a spiritual affinity carrying out Israel's message in contemporary literature.” Though there was no denying Österling had felt and viewed Agnon as far superior quality to Sachs. History however has judged differently.

1966, would be the second last time the Nobel Prize for Literature would be jointly awarded. The last time the award was shared was eight years later in 1974, to two Swedish Academy members: Evyind Johnson and Harry Martinson.

1966, would also be the first time Günter Grass was nominated, but it would take another 33 years for him to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In the end Gentle Reader, 1966 saw the award go to Nelly Sachs a poet, who conducted and gave voice to the chorus of the holocaust and the 20th century tragedy; while Shmuel Yosef Agnon was praised for his unique use of the Hebrew language, but this linguistic dependency will alienate readers who have no prior knowledge of the Jewish culture. In the end, Nelly Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature with the citation: “for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel's destiny with touching strength.” Shmuel Yosef Agnon received the following citation for his award: “for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people.”

The joint award was fine on its simplistic level that the two writers shared a common discussion of the suffering of human and Jewish tragedy; but their similarities end there. A joint award between Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan would have most certainly been more memorable; as the two were poetic soulmates, in which they wrote beautiful lyrical German poetry which discussed the tragedies of the early 20th century. But Paul Celan would commit suicide in 1970, and the day of his burial Nelly Sachs would died in Stockholm at the age of 79. Shmuel Yosef Agnon has since faded from common memory and readership with the grander public; retaining most of his readership within his niche circle and area; but beyond the Hebrew language he has fallen into obscurity. On this, sometimes the Nobel gets it right, and other times it does not. 1966 would at best be an example of compromise between the factions within the Swedish Academy; where a large proponent of the members were forward in their proposal of Nelly Sachs taking the prize.  Yet Anders Österling felt Sachs was incapable of defending the choice merely on her own, and was able to nominate a joint award of two writes; while advocating his own personal preference: Shmuel Yosef Agnon. In the end two writers received the award because of their common heritage and spiritual experience and inclinations.

1966 would also mark a time when Swedish Academy rejected the list presented by the Nobel Committee, in which the top contender for the year: Yasunari Kawabata, did not receive the award.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Please Note Gentle Reader, the information for this blog was gathered from the Swedish newspaper: Svenska Dagbladet. Quotes from the article were modified to offer greater clarity in the English language. 

For the original articles please see the following links -- 

The Article below discusses Nelly Sachs win: 

Svd: "Svenska Akademien körde över Nobelkommittén,"

The following article discusses Shmuel Yosef Agnon:

Svd: "Agnon – en otidsenligt tidlös författare,"

For furhter informaton on the writers nominated for the year please check out: "World Literature Forum," for a unique and intelligent conversation: 

World Literature Forum: "Nobel Prize: 1966,"