The Birdcage Archives

Monday 30 December 2019

The End of The Decade

Hello Gentle Reader

December has been increasingly busy as it comes to its inevitable closure. The past weeks have been spent preparing and executing Christmas plans and get togethers with family; which apparently means enduring a marathon of hallmark Christmas movies; the continual assault of Christmas music now in an intimate home setting; and the polite suffrage of other holiday guests. With the New Year, and the New Decade right around the corner, everything else is coming to a unceremonious and routine ending.

At the end of the December, the Swedish Academy was quite busy. December 20th in particular was their Annual Grand meeting, whereby they’ve formally inducted their new elected members to the following chairs:

Chair No. 7 – Åsa Wikforss
Chair No. 9 – Ellen Mattson
Chair No. 13 – Anne Swärd
Chair No. 18 – Tua Forsström

Chair No. 5 – formally occupied by the late Göran Malmqvist currently sits vacant. If I were to offer a name to consider for election to this seat, it would be the writer, poet, librarian, academic, and translator Göran Sonnevi, who was kindly introduced to me by Bror Axel Dehn, a young up and coming journalist (and I am sure writer), whose current work can be found on Vagant. Göran Sonnevi is one of Swedens most esteemed poets, his range from political and topical discussions (the Vietnam War, the Cold War, globalization, immigration, and cultural conflicts), despite the social commentary they provide, Göran Sonnevi retains objective optics, never indoctrinating, supporting, or bolstering any ideological concept; instead his work seeks out greater universal human meaning in these events. His work has been awarded both the Swedish Academy Nordic Prize and the Nordic Council Literature Prize for: “The Ocean [Oceanen].” Göran Sonnevi would be a valuable member to the Swedish Academy. This being said, the Swedish Academy has made no formal statement or informal inclination as to who will succeed the late Göran Malmqvist.

For the time being congratulations are in order to the four formally inducted members. I make no reservations in stating that when it was announced Tua Forsström had been chosen to become an appointed member to the academy, I was ecstatic; though it wasn’t without a bittersweet aftertaste. I often speculated that Tua Forsström would be a worthy Nobel Laureate, her poetry probes with simplicity and grace the existential conundrums of human complexity; the conflicts and fragile nature of relationships; and the beauty and unforgiving natural landscape. It is an easy caveat to swallow, when one is able to be a part of the Nobel Laureate deliberations and discussions, even if it excludes them from winning the prize themselves. Of course my hope is that Tua Forsström will be able to lobby and bring Finnish speaking writers into the discussion. Needless to say I look forward to the coming years.

The other newly elected member to the Swedish Academy, Åsa Wikforss will also become a valuable asset to the Swedish Academy. As a professor of theoretical philosophy Åsa Wikforss’s recent work tackles the recent trend of ‘alternative facts,’ and the damaging potential they have on society, knowledge, and how information is consumed; with such an impressive portfolio and resume Åsa Wikforss will most certainly bring sobering perspective to the academy’s deliberations.

This year saw the return of the Nobel Prize for Literature, after it was postponed last year due to an unprecedented scandal and ensuring controversy, which saw numerous members resign, the Nobel Foundation take a adjudicating role, and numerous calls for the Swedish Academy to reform itself. Two-thousand and eighteen was not the best year for the Swedish Academy, though no stranger to controversy for some of their decisions; but when it came to scrutinizing their own affairs, such as their lack of proper governance, mismanagement of funds, allegations of conflict of interests, as well as the lack of ethics and moral obligations, the Swedish Academy’s austere grandeur fell aside, as the internal rot seeped forth, resulting in otherwise public disputes, disgraces, and battles between factions within the academy. It is hard to say whether or not the situation within the Swedish Academy has been completely resolved or not. Though the academy has renewed its statutes, taken greater precautions to strengthen its internal governance, and so far has been able to sate the ire from the Nobel Foundation, all the while seeking to carry on the with the routine operations of the academy’s work. Throughout it all, the Swedish Academy has elected and inducted new members into its ranks, has instilled yet another new Permanent Secretary, and is only one member short from being at full roster.

This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was unique as it would see two laureates announced one for two-thousand and nineteen, and the other retroactively for the previous year. The two laureates for the years: 2018 and 2019 were as follows:

2018 – Olga Tokarczuk: “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”

2019 – Peter Handke: “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”

Despite crawling away from the still smoldering remains of the previous scandal, the Swedish Academy found itself embroiled in a new one with the decision to award Peter Handke the prize. The controversy over Peter Handke’s documented support for the Serbian leader and war criminal Slobodan Milošević, became the major talking point during the Nobel season, which sadly overshadowed Peter Handke’s services and contribution to literature, while also overshadowing Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel recognition. The controversy surrounding Peter Handke, saw one of the external members of the Nobel Committee resign, and former Permanent Secretary Peter Englund did not attend the Nobel proceedings on moral grounds. It should be noted Peter Englund served with the Swedish military in Bosnia during the Yugoslav Wars, and on good conscious and unimpeachable integrity, Peter Englund boycotted the events. Meanwhile, wherever Peter Handke went, protests were sure to follow, and they did. Images, signs, slogans—were advertised quickly throughout the Stockholm and the internet, condemning Handke as a supporter of war crimes and genocide. Overtime the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Website and other social media outlets, attempted to curb or diminish the spotlight Peter Handke was given on these mediums, in order to curb the pushback further. Despite the protests, Peter handke still delivered his Nobel Lecture and received his Nobel medal and diploma by the hands of the King of Sweden.

Olga Tokarczuk, has sadly been overlooked during the proceedings, her achievements ignored, her merits unacknowledged. In comparing the two ins of Peter Handke and Olga Tokarczuk, some state that Peter Handke is the superior writer. Handke is noted for his formal experimentation, his work in multiple of mediums, the first and foremost being theatre. His novels have been noted for their powerful panoramic survey of the human condition, and its constant existential crisis. His influential pen has influenced many writers across the world. Handke has always been deemed one of the living classics, whose work will continue to be read, studied, consumed and enjoyed for years to come. His contributions to German literature, and soon international literature cannot be denied or overlooked. To compare Peter Handke and Olga Tokarczuk is not entirely a fair measurement of eithers literary merit, or their contributions or services to world literature. Peter Handke may have made explosive lasting impacts decades prior, Olga Tokarczuk in comparison has been a quiet giant on the global stage, whose long overdue recognition has now been reached. Where Peter Handke explores in the world in postmodern peripheral fashion, seeking to redefine or rediscover the world anew, while exemplifying the failure of language as a medium in order to properly transcribe the world, while hinting at the continued existential crisis of those inhabiting the world. Olga Tokarczuk can be found on the strange entangled postmodern family tree as Peter Handke. Where Peter Handke is most likely described as an early postmodernist with admiration in stylistic ventures towards modernism, Olga Tokarczuk delights in her narratives being a mosaic reflecting: “fragmented consciousness,” or reflecting a constellation like format, whereby multiple independent functions, coordinate to create a cohesive and unique unified whole, while maintaining their own unique qualities independent of the whole. Tokarczuk is not quite as impersonable as Handke is in his descriptions of the world around and beyond. In contrast, Olga Tokarczuk takes an introspective perspective, which slowly accumulates in its independence a singular reflection of the greater whole. As a student of Carl Jung and a psychologist by training, Tokarczuk maintains a fresh and vigorous curiosity to the human psyche. In a similar fashion to Jung, Olga Tokarczuk maintains an analytical and critical eye to the macro patterns of the human psyche via anthropological observation. Fairytales, folktales, and mythological elements weave and twine themselves through the cultures of the human experience, each one an independent reflection and understanding of the human experience as a whole. In turn, Olga Tokarczuk maintains a mythical approach to writing, producing tender narratives and modern fairytales, which reflect the primeval nature of the human imagination and its influence on the human condition.

In the award ceremony speech, the Swedish Academy praised Olga Tokarczuk’s work for its engagement in the ‘excoriating strangeness,’ of the world. The same strangeness which is found in her encyclopedic knowledge of the arcane, preoccupation with astrology, enjoyment of the forlorn and forgotten myths, superstitions, interpretation of dreams, and lost esoteric patron saints. These minute details and abstruse facts are but a few treasures which can be found in the mercurial work of Tokarczuk. Thankfully the auhor is also capable of turning these details, philosophical contemplations, digressions into psychology, history anatomy, and the otherwise unknown, into gripping and potent narratives that can engage the reader on both an intellectual level but also an enjoyable level. Beyond her engagement with the ‘excoriating strangeness,’ of the world, the Swedish Academy gives immediate praise to the author for her engagement with humanistic ideals. In this they reference her most recent work: “The Book of Jacob,” (translation forthcoming in English in the New Year) the Swedish Academy makes poignant and potent observations about the writer’s depiction of Jakob Frank the charismatic mystic, who also is nothing but a fraudulent manipulator, and theological rebel. His questionings and positionings as himself as a new Messiah, are no different, but rather simply on par with others through the later centuries, such as Hitler or Stalin. Despite their differences in work, or their cruel nature of their actions in accordance with their messages, they are able to rally their rabbles under a common guise, on common ground, with a common scheme, which ultimately leads to a new and better world. In this perhaps, despite her humanistic vision, Olga Tokarczuk also sees the inherent flaw to the ideologies of seeking to create or achieve a new or better world, it is destined to its own failure, because what is new or what is better is not equally shared by all. Despite this, Olga Tokarczuk had announced she will use part of the prize money associated with the Nobel Prize win to establish a foundation to promote cross-cultural exchanges, human rights activism for civil freedoms, and support for environmental causes.

As Nobel week came to its ceremonious conclusion for the year, neither literature laureate appeared during the Nobel Minds forum for the year. Instead the round table held at the old Stockholm Exchange (where the Swedish Academy resides) along with the noble museum and library, was filled with physicists, scientists, doctors and economist, who discussed their work, the state of the world, and their goals and hopes for the future. Why the literature laureates were dismissed or not included is not known; or perhaps they may have chosen to abstain from those proceedings.

In the end, both writers and now Nobel Laureates, handled the procession and proceedings with exceptional grace. They delivered their lectures unencumbered. Peter Handke did not acknowledge the protests leveraged against him. In turn, it appears to the public relations arm of the Nobel media and the Swedish Academy attempted to control Handke’s social media presence. In comparison, the public relations arm of the media turned its focus to Olga Tokarczuk, announcing she left a personal journal from the year two-thousand and eighteen in the hands of the Nobel Museum. Her banquet speech was quickly watched and delighted with. Photos of the author visiting students in Stockholm to talk was also pushed to the forefront, including captions about the student’s inquiry about the authors hair, and articles about LEGO enthusiasts crafting their own models of the newly inducted Nobel Laureate.

In receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Olga Tokarczuk joins the pantheon alongside: Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz.

In receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Peter Handke joins the pantheon alongside fellow writer: Elfriede Jelinek, and much like Jelinek he has proven to have been just as controversial, divisive, and cantankerous, while being completely apathetic towards it all.

The end of this decade has not been entirely kind to the literary scene either. Many great writers have been lost over the course of the year. Tributes as New Years rapidly approaches continue to pour in for the late Nobel Laureate American writer Toni Morrison, whose work helped to engage and revolutionize the American novel to include the African-American experience, to come not from the perspective of the sympathetic who have never experienced the alienation, segregation, racism, degradation, and haunting shadow of slavery; but from the nit and grit narrative of an African-American. Numerous tributes touched on Toni Morrison’s warmth, kindness, and generosity, as well as her personal quirks, which have been openly discussed by her friend and cohort Fran Lebowitz who lovingly remembers Toni Morrison’s sweet tooth (she preferred dessert first over the meal) and her love of giving and of course receiving gifts. Beyond her personal qualities which have won over her friends, and cemented them throughout her life, Morrisons literary work will continue to survive beyond her death. Her is a testament to the history of the United States of America, but not from the same old conventional narrative of the country rising from glorious revolution into its current superpower status throughout the previous centuries; rather the narrative turns towards the complicated and divisive history the country has had with the idea of superiority, racism, and discrimination which continue to fester to this day. Rather then being a torch of resentment, bitterness, and biting rebellion, Toni Morrison produced novels of grace, kindness, poignancy through personal tragedy which ultimately leads one to forgiveness. In this Toni Morrison always took the high road, the right road, the moral road—the one that not only salvaged the soul, but saved the spirit.

Two-thousand and nineteen also saw the death of former member and Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Sara Danius who succumbed to cancer at the young age of fifty-seven; it also saw the death of the mammoth monolith of American literary theory and criticism, Harold Bloom.

Despite the deaths, personal upheavals, and the general dirty business of life, two-thousand and nineteen has been an alright year for reading. Though I did not get a lot of reading done—a recent stock has only five books listed (!)—but I’ve enjoyed the books for the most part. Reading Han Kang remains a highlight of the reading year. The breakout Korean writer rivals Bae Suah, with eschewing the others cerebral musings and surreal juxtapositions, for understated ethereal elegance. Where Bae Suah eschews literary forms from essay to fiction, blending time with liberal ease, and probing the philosophical and the psychological with minimal concern; Han Kang traces (or attempts to) the ghost, the shadow, the spirit, and the soul of the human experience, as it is shaped by tragedy, violence and other events beyond the immediate control of the individual. Han Kang dissuaded any concern one may hold against her work. She proved herself to being a remarkable writer, of the most enviable talents. Of course, there was also Patrick Modiano to read, and Olga Tokarczuk; neither writer one can go wrong with, reading them is like visiting with an old friend. I am currently still working my way through Annie Ernaux’s “The Years,” but will have it completed in the New Year. The pace in which I am reading “The Years,” is set by circumstances beyond my control at the moment, time lays down its immediate demands first, and unfortunately reading must come secondary to ensuring the fridge is stocked and food is on the table. This being said, “The Years,” has been a wonderful book to drop and return to on such as sporadic basis. It’s quite a unique read. Its disappointing to think that Annie Ernaux, until now has never been on my radar.

For now, though Gentle Reader the year and decade come to a close, and a new one just a few days away. I each of you have a relaxing and rejuvenating Christmas, be it quiet or populated. With everything coming to its end, regular life is set to resume shortly, and we best prepare ourselves to reacquaint ourselves to it as well.

I look forward to writing, talking, and hearing from you in the coming year. Happy New Year Gentle Reader—here’s hoping I can get more reading done in the coming year as well.

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

M. Mary

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