The Birdcage Archives

Monday 29 January 2024

N. Scott Momaday Dies Aged 89

Hello Gentle Reader,

N. Scott Momaday is often remarked and remembered as a legendary figure and foundational pillar in the Native American Renaissance literary movement, his groundbreaking and trail brazing novel: “House Made of Dawn,” was the first work by a Native American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. Originally conceived as a poetry collection, “House Made of Dawn,” shifted and evolved into N. Scott Momaday’s most breathtaking novel, which became a cornerstone for Native American studies and anthologized work. The novel incorporates circular narrative structure, common in native American oral story traditions, while introducing modernist literary techniques such as stream of consciousness, multiple character perspectives, and a disjointed narrative to trace a Native American veterans disaffected return to society in the postwar society, and his gradual spiritual remediation. The novel is complex, defying both expectations of its content, while introducing readers to literary forms and cultures that were previously unknown to them. Most importantly, however, “House Made of Dawn,” encapsulated a prevailing literary theme for N. Scott Momaday, which was self-defining and actualization. These themes were further explored in “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” an impressive literary piece encompassing history, ethnography, folklore, and poetic memoir, tracing Momaday’s Kiowa heritage. Once again, the work encompasses different compositional methods and voices to provide an overlapping understanding of oneself, time, culture and history. “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” is prescribed as rudimentary reading for newcomers to Native American culture, history, and literary composition which again showcases N. Scott Momaday as not just a writer but a keen scholar and academic. Poetry remained N. Scott Momaday’s favourite literary expression, and critics often declared his poetry exceptional and highly original. Subsequent publications broached a hybrid between poetry and prose. As a scholar, N. Scott Momaday became an expert on oral storytelling traditions, delineating the oral storytelling traditions and ritual of passing down knowledge, history, and cultural significance through tales by Native American’s is not inferior to the written or recorded text, but as much its equal if not even superior, for its roots go back thousands upon thousands of years, when language existed within an ephemeral state without material vessel. N. Scott Momaday may be remembered for his debut novel “House Made of Dawn,” and blazing the path for fellow Native American writers such as Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich, and Thomas King, to enter the mainstream and occupy and be appreciated by the literary masses and establishment; but most importantly, N. Scott Momaday applied literary theory and criticism to traditional modes of storytelling and recitation, enshrining them within a literary establishment, recognizing their merit and cultural significance.

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

M. Mary

Sunday 28 January 2024

– XXIV –

When dissent is replaced with deference, the soul of society, of human achievement, and ingenuity is lost. Criticism is never pleasant, but it aerates the otherwise stagnant placid soil of mediocrity.

Thursday 18 January 2024

A Man’s Place

Hello Gentle Reader,

Annie Ernaux’s literary language is a focal point of discussion for both readers and critics. Ernaux’s language operates in complete contrast to her subject matter, which is often excruciatingly personal, bordering on the voyeuristically testimonial. It is Ernaux’s literary language which ultimately saves her work from being tarnished or decreed as tabloid sensationalism and oriented to solicit shock value reactions. By maintaining a language of neutrality, an otherwise blanche prose style, Ernaux is able to write candidly about intrapersonal and interpersonal affairs, including those of an otherwise intensly personal and private nature, be it sexual/extra-martial affairs or botched abortions. The dissociative tone employed ensures the language is bleached, starched and ironed. Then processed further and refined into a state where all the sentimentality, sensationalism, and expressionism are blanched into a state of colourlessness. This is aptly described as “clinical acuity,” as referenced in the Swedish Academy’s citation when awarding Annie Ernaux, the Nobel Prize in Literature. The rendering of exhumed and examined personal experience, relationships, and observations into a state of placid neutrality are the hallmarks of Annie Ernaux’s literary career, and are the defining features of her style and literary language. In describing her literary career, Ernaux described herself as a personal-ethnographer, and her association with sociological thought and analysis is deeply rooted in her examinations of the personal in relation to the greater social narrative, historical positioning and collective memory.  

Ernaux’s Nobel Lecture is titled and styled: “I Will Write to Avenge My People,” where Ernaux invokes Rimbaud both through the prayer and the anthem:

            “I am of an inferior race for all eternity.”

This affirms Annie Ernaux as not just a writer of purely literary interest, but a writer of sociological observation, documentation, analysis and engagement, which inevitably means it will swerve into political dimensions. Literature and political thought and opinion are not mutually exclusive. Literature is equal parts weapon, vehicle and tool of political ideologies. In return, literature is equal critic and agitator, a space of intellectual inspiration and safe haven of freedom of speech. In short: public enemy number one, for those who seek to wield unlimited political power. The words: “I Will Write to Avenge My People,” were first written in a diary of a young Annie Ernaux, affirming to the author that her literary output will be intensely focused on the inadequacies, inequalities, and perceived injustices that were leveraged against her heritage. This clearly can be reviewed in one of her monumental analysis’s: “A Man’s Place,” a short examination of her father’s life, including the prescribed social disadvantages that were leveraged against him and his struggle to alleviate himself of his circumstances and fashion himself and his subsequent family a better life.

What separates Annie Ernaux from the classic French poet Rimbaud in his statement: “I am of an inferior race for all eternity,”— is that Ernaux does not employ language as an imaginative response to transfigure and elevate situations, circumstances, and experiences into a new reality; instead, Ernaux uses language as the necessary surgical instruments and implements to dispel the fog and uncertainties of memory. All the implanted pleasantries and falsities are plucked, pulled, and weeded out. After surgical removal, begins the process of autopsy, examining the intricacies of a life deprived of sentimentality and preferable treatment. All that matters is austere honesty. As Ernaux confess, when first seeking to write a novel regarding her father as the main character, it ultimately failed due to the artistic licensing that betrayed the genuine life that her father lived and experienced. Instead Ernaux concluded, the only way she would be able to treat her father as a literary subject would be to:

“[…] If I wish to tell the story of life governed be necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach, or attempt to produce something “moving” or “gripping.” I shall collate my fathers’ words, tastes and mannerisms, as well as the main events of his life. In short, all the external evidence of his existence, an existence which I too shared.

“No lyrical reminisces, no triumphant displays of irony. The neutral way of writing comes to me naturally. It was the same style I used when I wrote home telling my parents the latest news.”  

What follows is a succinct portrait of a man whose life was incubated in shade, shame, and adversity, and a quiet singular ambitious goal to rise out of pre-established social classes and predestined circumstances fitting of the time, and make a respectable life. Ernaux’s father was born at the turn of the century (1899) to a carter (farm labourer), who resisted his conditions of his social stature by exerting his masculinity. To no surprise he was a man of limited education and illiterate, and would fly into a rage if he found (or caught) his children reading. The home is described as having an earth floor and thatched roof. What today might be called a proper rustic cottage. Ernaux’s father was pulled from school at the age of 12 to begin earning his keep, working on the same farm as his father. Though the job provided minimal money (at once point described as pocket change) his position provided lodging and food (he would sleep above the stables), and his laundry would be done for him once a week. Unlike his own father, however, Ernaux’s own father was not illiterate. Regardless, pastoral farmhand life came to an abrupt end as industrialization took hold of the nation and the first World War I broke out and ended. In this time, he worked in a rope factory and would meet his future wife:

“When he came back, he never wanted to go back to “culture.” That’s how he called farming. The other meaning of culture, the spiritual one, did no good to him.”

What follows is the definitively personal caught up in the waves of the historical. The economic fallout of 1929, the Second World War and the post-war economic boom. Throughout it at all, Ernaux traces her fathers upwelling social movements, moving out of the social class of indentured farmhand and factory worker into a property owner and grocer-café owner. Despite elevating himself into a state of entry level middle class, Ernaux examines how her father’s early life of culture that is labour oriented work and its lacking manners and refined language, still dodge him and maintain his anchorage in a lower social circle. Her father’s work is not without benefit or success, as it afforded and facilitated Annie Ernaux’s own social upwelling into more sustainable economic and social classes, while granting her further opportunity to study and continue her education. Ernaux confirms through her academic aptitude and excellence is key to moving into gentrified circles. This also becomes a point of division, which ultimately emancipates herself from her father, who despite fixing a better life for himself and establishing a foundation for his daughter to move into more professional careers and obtain a proper bourgeoise marriage, she is ultimately separated from her father, loosing common ground and a sense of equality. This can clearly be seen in Annie Ernaux’s first marriage, where her husband (a man from an established bourgeoise family) does not visit her family in their small grocery-café in Normandy, as referenced and mulled over in the biting realization of the polar opposites of their worlds:

“What could a man brought up in middle-class circles—where people got degrees and cultivated the art of irony—possibly have to say to honest, hard-working people like my parents? Although he acknowledged their kindness, in his yes it would never replace a lively, witty conversation, sadly lacking in their case. In his family, for instance, if someone broke a glass, one would immediately cry out: “Touch it not, for it is broken!” a quote from Sully Prudhomme’s poem Le Vase Brisé).”

In writing “A Man’s Place,” Annie Ernaux does not remediate her father’s life, turning it into a literary feast of lyricism or poignant reminisces. It is however an account of one man’s life from hardship to eventual enjoyment, even if it takes into considerable suffering and estrangement along the way. Ernaux’s completely colourless prose is what makes “A Man’s Place,” a successful review of one’s life. By eschewing sentimentality, forced lyricism, and creating any fictional review of the life, Ernaux encapsulates her father as a complex man who rose from an era that is forgotten and limitedly documented. In one telling anecdote regarding her father’s upbringing, Annie Ernaux recounts the stark contrast between the vision and world of her father’s time as described in books to that of his own account:

“When I read Proust or Mauriac, I don’t think that they write about the time when my father was a child. His background, it was the Middle Ages.”

“A Man’s Place,” shows Annie Ernaux at her best, her literary endeavour to capture the sociological and ethnographic of the times, to examine memory without nostalgia or infused with sentimentality, but provide context, narrative, and understanding of the times. Writing about her father, provided acute observation of her father’s life and its trajectory, one that was completely different and alien to her own, but is also intrinsically woven within her character, and a part of her personal history, but also a component of the entire history of French society, but is just conveniently overlooked. In writing about her father, Annie Ernaux has reconciled the man and the memory with herself, while bring to light the class divisions and social neglect within French society, and their realities melting away in the post-war years, as more and more individuals found further and further opportunity outside of their working-class upbringing. But the question that lingers afterwards is, who is left behind?

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

M. Mary

Thursday 11 January 2024

Old Rendering Plant

Hello Gentle Reader, 

Time is experienced and rarely observable. Its passage is the thread stitched into daily life. While routinely checked and even brushed against, it’s never explicitly observed with great intensity. The tick and tocks of clocks ripple through many lives. In unison they fall back and spring forward. An individual’s relation to time is impersonable, all the while being the defining and guiding structure of their lives. No longer just the stitch of order, but the scaffolding of governance, the conductor of days, the accountancy of the hours and minutes, scrutinizer of seconds, the auditor of the rhythm of one’s life. Time and age are primordial components of the material and corporeal universe. Human beings have only provided it a shape and form beyond the celestial cycle and seasonal nature. What follows is both adaption, evolution, ingenuity and advancement. The old is not merely cast off. Not easily erased. Instead, it is readily abandoned. Its vanguard marches towards new horizons. What’s left behind is ghost and remnants. Eroded memories of former gilded ages. What immediately springs to mind is Detroit, the poster child of the post-industrialist and post-capitalist society as the world entered a new globalized era and domestic defenses and protective measures were chipped away and sold off or resourced and outsourced elsewhere (cynically of course, to locales where safety and labour laws were either non-existent or unenforced). Detroit has become that haunted city of glory and ruin. Photographic evidence, documentaries, reports, statistics, everything describes a city in continued and sustained collapse. An apocalyptic landscape of neglected infrastructure. Abandoned public works. Warehouses remain as tombstones of echoed emptiness. Homes (once beautiful thriving communities) are entombed, boarded up, haunted by memories of their past occupants, now housing squatters and the equal dispossessed and despondent within their walls. The soul of the city in palliative care. Those otherwise kind and well-meaning hands prone to fumbles and apologies. This decay. This concrete rot. This urban decomposition is not exclusive to the cities. Though remarkable in photographic evidence, conjuring the dark poetic romanticism of Poe, the capture of that otherwise urban gothic with its broken windows, water-stained concrete, bright, brilliant, and vulgar graffiti. This stillness and collapse mark the past and apprehensively looks to the horizon with uncertainty. The prairies are full of decay and desolation. The difference, where cities—beautiful urban centres of light and life—exist within their defined borders and city limits, and as beacons brighten the path and light up the sky, beckoning for all night time travelers to hither; the prairies are lost within their own all-consuming expanse. Their endless nihilistic nothingness of long blue skies and herds of clouds, to grasslands or farmlands that stretch ever forward and always onward, remaining out of the way not as a point of exclusivity, but as a mere fact of reality. Out there is the periphery. Littered amongst the afterthought of the urbane, are buildings and communities in minor key, collapsing in on themselves. Homes left abandoned. Gardens overgrown. Business closed up and boarded. Those once great cathedrals of the prairies (grain elevators) are out of step and out of time. Demolished and destroyed. Now reduced to memories and afterimages. Further along are barns and homesteads pock marked amongst the vastness as skeletal remains or fossils. In their exaggerated German expressionistic poses, they remain. This is also the world of Wolfgang Hilbig as depicted in his novel “Old Rendering Plant,” an East German community that exists in various states of industrial and post-industrial decay, in a communist society that not only facilitates this decay but orchestrates, engineers, and designs it. The social structure can only be described as one in routine deterioration.

Before Krasznahorkai László was dubbed the master of the apocalypse, the title would have easily been applied to the Wolfgang Hilbig, whose prose is dense as it is darkly lyrical, an uncontrolled monologue of stream of consciousness prose with a penchant for metaphor and repetition, refining the imagery into further and further layers, providing both observations and impressions of a community of no defining features or character, but one that exists within a state of sustained decline. Wolfgang Hilbig’s narrator is an unnamed and unidentified man, whose place within time is never placeable. At first a child left to his own devices explores further and further into the landscape, into the reaches until its dark:

“I recalled a brook outside town whose current, strangely shimmering, sometimes milky, I once followed for miles all autumn or longer, if only hoping to emerge one day from a territory confined, I’ll admit it at last, by the bounds of my weariness. 

Each exploration, each journey takes him further and further into the industrial landscape, overgrown with vegetation, and always darkening upon his return home, where in the facelessness of the apartment, he makes his excuses for routinely tardy defiance of curfew and parental parameters. Chided, scolded, and remanded to his room without supper, his childlike Odessey into the post-industrial landscape continues, taking on increasingly surreal and vicious form:

“The willows . . . seemed to metamorphose into fantastic creatures, the spawn of some freakishly fertile subsoil, ugly crippled excrescences that through their degeneration had come into power and evil.”   

All the while the vanished and the disappeared (speculated to be victims of the Stasi), become a silhouette of a shadow that routinely flints in and out of the narrators’ recollections. His family members (faceless and shapeless shadows unto themselves) sit at the dinner table, listening to the radio rattle on the list of those who have disappeared. The last fact of their presence and existence being the recitation of their names, which in one instance form as an incantation for the narrator as they drift to sleep:

“All this time the name had failed to come, remained missing…all this time other names murmured away at me, similar, barely distinguishable names, identical names that bored and sapped me, following me into my dreams to bring void and vertigo—but I knew they were still there when I woke, studding the ceiling, fading only for seconds in the darts of light that shot through the curtains, giving me a second time to fall asleep with sonorous sawing that scarcely differed from the from the sawing and rasping of the names…rasping like small but assiduous waves on the shore, trickling up the far-too-large adult bed in which I lay crosswise and head down in a swaying, spinning voyage beneath the twilight of letters impossible to dim as, beneath the moon’s burning baby-face, I drifted out on the empty, watery fields of my dreams:…seeking Schiller, Frank…Shiller, Franz. . . schiller, Franz Heinrich. . .Schiller, Franz Otto…Schiller, Friedrich…seeking Schiller, Fritz…Schiller, Gustav…

There is no real answer for the narrator’s childhood sojourns into the landscape. One rationale provided is childhood fascination with times transition. These threshold moments of the days when the predefined expire and transfigure into a new entity. This disembodiment of time fascinates and compels in how it warps the landscape and changes the perspective. Then of course is the physical exploration for getting to the matter of the heart of darkness, the wretchedness and labourious bedrock which secures this otherwise dead society. First forays of course, provide an inventory of losses or abandonment: an old coal mine; a watermill which provides refugee for savage Easterners; but finally, the actual old rendering plant, a hellscape in its own right, encircled in a reputation that immediately evokes disgust in other residents, the workers of the plant looked upon with revulsion due to the nature of their work. They are cast out and alienated. The plant itself spews greased smoke and pollutes the brook. Despite being a manufacturing facility to render cleaning agents, the workers of the plant are described as having a particular perfume a scent all their own. As an individual with no further prospects for further education, our narrator is adrift when it comes to discussions of his future, his prospect being technical training or apprenticeship, and instead, as if by rebellion or pure carelessness decides to work in the rendering plant (Germania II). To lower himself further into the ruin, the grease smoked air of rendered and reduced animal parts, establishing himself as an outsider. What follows suit is a monologue and protest, a revolt against the communist system and the party, and all the workers of the world it supposedly represents.

Wolfgang Hilbig is a master of atmosphere, curating and disorienting it. Sentence by long sentence weaves through this slim novel, twisting and looping back on itself. “Old Rendering Plant,” is an onion like narrative, continually being peeled and returning to some dissembled focal point, before branching in another path or falling down another hole. At the heart of it lies a core rotten, greasy ridden and rendered into a noxious poison, which ironically produces the required cleaning agents to maintain the cleanliness of good home and health. Hilbig’s prose easily eclipses both Krasznahorkai László and Jon Fosse’s, being the forefather and progenitor, while happily plunging into the darkness of the existential, finding neither hope nor salvation within its darkness, but merely the parts worth reduction into the process of repurposing. “Old Rendering Plant,” is not an easy read, despite its physical length being quite consumable, Wolfgang Hilbig proves himself to be a master and wielder of the sentence, delighting in changing the form or disrupting perspective or introducing some new image and exploring its exaggerated components with frightening detail. I look forward to re-reading “Old Rendering Plant,” again in the future, and this time sitting down with the intention of reading it out loud, in order to follow and flow with the with the narrative, its cadences, its rhymes, and as well as marveling at Wolfgang Hilbig’s mastery of longwinded sentences, breathtaking in their extended strokes, the complete opposite to the pointillism of Herta Müller. It is interesting to wonder, if “Old Rendering Plant,” is allegorical in its composition? Hilbig of course denied the charge, refuting the claims that it allegorized or metaphorized the former East German state and the Stasi or the Holocaust; and while it’s easy to say that allegory is lazy interpretation, “Old Rendering Plant,” does appear to render and boil down German history from the Third Reich to the Holocaust to communist East German, as a way of expunging the past in order to greet the future, with all its grease smoke filled skies.

Thank you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
M. Mary

Thursday 4 January 2024

The Nobel Prize in Literature Nominations 1973

Hello Gentle Reader,

In 1973 the Nobel Prize in Literature moved beyond its pre-established borders and introduced a new continent into its purview, when it was announced that the Australian writer Patrick White was the years Nobel Laureate in Literature with the citation:

“For an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature.”

There is a somewhat tongue and cheek tone to the citation concerning the part: “[…] which has introduced a new continent into literature,”— as before receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, Patrick White was not popular among Australian readers and citizens. White’s writing was rooted in established staunch European and English literary traditions, and did not break any new ground either literary or geographically, but was a consummate novelist in his own right. Interestingly enough, Patrick White’s debut novel “Happy Valley,” was never re-issued in his lifetime, having only be reprinted in 2012, in commemorating White’s centennial birthday. “Happy Valley,” was written while White was a jackaroo, a job that his parents thought would be suitable to finally stamp out his sensitives, proclivities, and artistic ambitious for a career as a writer. In short it failed. White’s initial years as a stockman and agricultural worker of the land, proved to be dismal and unfulfilling, all the while establishing that he had neither the grit nor aptitude for the work. “Happy Valley,” in turn provides the debut of Patrick White’s European sensibilities that have been thrusted into a harsh and wild landscape that is both unforgiving and unwelcoming. Written in fragrant modernist style and producing a polyphonic stream-of-consciousness narrative stream. White made it very clear he was not a writer of egalitarian ideals, but relished in high culture with no interest in engaging in philistine merriment that was consumed and disseminated around him. “Happy Valley,” describes a remote community in the South East corner of Australia, desolate and beautiful it recounts the hardscape life of the inhabitants of the land, where everyone has a story regarding loss and loneliness and longing for escape, all the while being incapable of completely wrenching themselves from it into emancipation and liberty. Instead through distinct voices and vivid psychological cadence, Patrick White displays the characters forsake escape and resign themselves to sorrowful acceptance of their otherwise ordinary lives. “Happy Valley,” introduces the main concerns of Patrick White’s literary preoccupation with the extraordinary in the ordinary, depicted in intense psychological character studies, whereby the characters are imbued with a sense of intuitive and spiritual understanding of their otherwise pedestrian lives, which inevitably grants them further insight into their condition, by which language fails to adequately express their complexities in an external environment and so they are classified as deranged, eccentric, and delusional and cast out further and retreat increasingly inward. In this, Patrick White is a consummate psychological writer, exploring and spelunking ever further into the depths of consciousness and the interior realms of his characters.

In his subsequent novels: “The Aunt’s Story,” The Tree of Man,” “Voss,” “The Vivisector,” and “The Eye of the Storm,” Patrick White became the Australian explorer of the existential, but was still regarded in his homeland as being one with a European soul and had forsaken the ruff and tumble straightforward style of postcolonial Australia, for the complex and difficult modernism as the prevailing literary fashion of the time. In short, White’s reception in Australia would always be marked with muted response and remains so. Despite time abroad, returning to Australia and marveling at its intense geography and landscape instilled within White a sense of humility. “The Tree of man,” is considered Patrick White’s defining novel and his breakout success. “The Tree of Man,” places a microscope and focuses on the lives of the Parker family and their homestead within the Australian outback. The ordinariness of the everyday is transfigured within heightened poetic details and exploration of the psychological dimensions, proving that Patrick White had the European soul which alienated him so from the Australian literary, all the while recounting and celebrating the majestic beauty of the Australian landscape. Ordinary existence is never treated as mundane, it is heightened and exalted within a literary style that is complex and meandering to mimic the human experience of thought and relation to time. “The Tree of Man,” affirmed Patrick White as the premiere Australian modernist writer, one whose appreciation of Greek mythology as allegory, Judaeo-Christian mysticism, Jungian psychological theories, and a penchant for Joycean complexities and Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness ensure he was appreciated as a serious writer of high literary calibre.

In his award ceremony speech, Artur Lundkvist sought to balance out the Swedish Academy’s citation by both celebrating the introduction of the Australian-Oceanic continent into the literary pantheon by praising Patrick White’s exploration, display, and praise of the Australian landscape, by comparing him to great Australian pictorial artists of the time: Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale; but in turn focused on White’s literary achievements, which are less concerned with the preoccupations of Australian perspective, and instead are fixated experiences, perceptions, problems, and living situations which are intensely individualized, bypassing the provincial or national concerns, and moving into the universal and existential questioning of the human condition. In short, Artur Lundkvist praises the contrary insoluble qualities of Patrick White’s literary work, the harmonizing of the epic and poetic within the otherwise ordinary (albeit alienated/outsider) life.

As a Nobel Laureate, Patrick White’s laureateship was less political than his predecessors, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1970) and Pablo Neruda (1971). This ultimately took the edge off of the prize to evade another heated debate regarding literary merit vs political posturing and pandering. The reception of Patrick White’s laureateship was equally ceremoniously without issue, and the debate within the Swedish Academy was civil. Of course, this was not the first time Patrick White had been discussed or nominated. In the year prior he was on the shortlist with winner Henrich Böll, and future laureates Eugenio Montale (1975) Günter Grass (1999). While in 1971, Patrick White was included on the shortlist along with W.H Aude, André Malraux, and Eugenio Montale.

A total of 101 writer were nominated for the award in 1973. The shortlist for 1973 was as follows:

Patrick White (Laureate for 1973)
Saul Bellow (would win 1976)
Anthony Burgess
William Golding (would win 1983)
Eugenio Montale (would win 1975)
Yiannis Ritsos

After the votes had been tallied the Swedish Academy decided on a majority that Patrick White would be the suitable laurate for the year. Saul Below with five votes was a close second, and the then Chairman of the Nobel Committee, Karl Ragnar Gierow, threw his preferable support behind Saul Bellow and Yiannis Ritsos, who got four votes. Anthony Burgess, William Golding, and Eugenio Montale each received three votes. Of these three, Eugenio Montale would go on win the award in 1975 and can be considered the last great Italian poet of the 20th century to receive the honour. While, William Golding, the small British phenomenon of no importance (to quote, Artur Lundkvist) would go on to receive the award in 1983, and is remembered for his dreary and drab parabolic novel “The Lord of the Flies.”

It is interesting to see the Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos being discussed. No doubt his name will crop up again in the subsequent years and a debate come to head between himself and Odysseus Elytis, both with extremely different poetry differences. Despite hating being referenced as a ‘political poet,’ Yiannis Ritsos poetry was renowned for cutting its teeth in the political arena and discourse, as Ritsos was politically aligned to the left and was a documented Communist Party member. Unsurprisingly, Ritsos found himself routinely persecuted and imprisoned for his political allegiances and involvement. In 1975 Yiannis Ritsos received the Lenin Peace Prize, which the poet famously remarked meant more to him then the Nobel Prize. Over the 1970’s it is likely that Yiannis Ritsos will continue to be discussed as a potential laureate and maybe viewed as an oppositional figure to sunlight infused surrealism of his countrymen Odysseus Elytis.

Other notable nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973 included:

Elie Wiesel (32 nominations)
W.H. Auden (12 nominations)
André Malraux (8 nominations)
André Chamson (5 nominations)
Juline Green (5 nominations)
Gyula Illyés (5 nominations)
Vladimir Nabokov (5 nominations)

It has become apparent by this time, that the Swedish Academy had confirmed their resignation to disavow W.H. Auden from being considered any further due to his advancing age. Auden, in turn died September 29, 1973 at 66 years old, which by todays standards would still have put him in viable contention. André Malraux also found himself now firmly seated on the back bench of the Swedish Academy. Interesting that Elie Wiesel was nominated with such vigor, and while it does not surprise me that he was nominated, considering his monumental and poignant work “Night.” Wiesel would go on receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, not only for his literary production but for his continued humanitarian work. In the case of Vladimir Nabokov, the Swedish Academy had made their positions on his work very clear, as they found the work “Lolita,” which they found as immoral and perverse, which was the exact opposite of Vladimir Nabokov’s intentions when writing the novel.

Nominations for the 1973 Nobel Prize in literature included many future Nobel Laureates:

Eyvind Johnson (1974)
Harry Martinson (1974)
Vicente Alexiandre (1977)
Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978)
Odysseus Elytis (1979)
Elias Canetti (1981)
Claude Simon (1985)
Camilo Jose Cela (1989)
Nadine Gordimer (1991)
V.S. Naipaul (2001)
Doris Lessing (2007)

The following list of writers were first nominated in 1973, of them, only two nominated writers would receive the award, the Spanish poet Vicente Aleixandre in 1977, and the Yiddish literary master Isaac Bashevis Singer.  

Conrad Aiken (died 1973, making him ineligible)
Vicente Aleixandre (1977)
Antonio Aniante
Miodrag Bulatovic
Albert Cohen
Adolfo Costa du Rels
Indira Devi Dhanrajgir
Eugen Jebeleanu
Yasar Kemal
Zenta Maurina
Henry Miller
John Crow Ransom
Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978)
Pratapnarayan Tandon
Paul Voivenel
Martin Wickramasinghe
Chiang Yee
Xu You

The Swedish Academy’s deliberations during the 1973 prize also showcased a continued conversation regarding the nominations of both Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, two Swedish writers and members of the Swedish Academy. Precedence had already been set that the Swedish Academy could award one of its own members with the prize, as in the case of the moralist Pär Lagerkvist who received the award in 1951 with minimal controversy. Lagerkvist in turn was a continued nominator and supporter of both Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson. Artur Lundkvist previously expressed concerns in the 1972 deliberations of the prize:

“It is not only highly respectable but almost inevitable that Mr. Lagerkvist, as a former Swedish Nobel laureate within the Academy, in this way insists on yet another Nobel Prize for an academy colleague. But in its ultimate consequence it involves the prospect of recurring rewards to academy members, and that is something that, in my view, should be avoided. [. . .] My opinion is that one should think very carefully before awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to a Swede at all, and that in the current situation there is a special reason why this does not happen.”

In 1973, however, the pressure to consider a Swedish writer as eligible for the Nobel Prize in Literature had mounted. Then Chairman of the Nobel Committee and Permanent Secretary Karl Ragnar Gierow, decided to discuss the topic in length, bypassing the Nobel Committee’s more reserved silence on the matter as a polite mere non-issue. In 1973, Gierow observed that there were only three Swedish writers whose work was assessed to meeting the standard of the Nobel Prize in Literature at the time: Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson and Vilhelm Moberg, writing:

“Also, on this year's list of proposals, they assert themselves well. Harry Martinson is not behind Ritsos in lyrical richness and is more original. Eyvind Johnson and Vilhelm Moberg measure themselves in epic power with the storytellers, who this year are in the foreground, this said in full awareness that no one is strictly measuring themselves against anyone else: there is no reliable and manageable measuring stick.”

Of course, Karl Ragnar Gierow understands the risks, noting that it could damage the reputation of the Nobel Prize and the Swedish Academy itself. Yet, the question was not a discussion of pure literary merit, but a conversation of optics and suitability. Artur Lundkvist had previously argued against the irreconcilable unsuitability of awarding members of the Swedish Academy, and while Karl Ragnar Gierow highlights the defining concerns presented by Lundkvist, he eloquently disregards them, as suitability is not a defining feature of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but literary merit, at which trumps all concerns over nationality, religion, political allegiance, race or another exterior concern. Karl Ragnar Gierow further argued against the exclusion of association of the academy or direct membership, noting that in previous years past with the science prizes, laureates from their respective academy and awarding institutions had also been inducted into laureateship, to exempt or exclude members of the Swedish Academy was viewed as unreasonable consideration on the grounds of suitability. Karl Ragnar Gierow continued with almost a sardonic tone that if the Swedish Academy (who included both a blend of academics and writers) is to punish and bar its own members from being considered on their literary ground, it should avoid appointing remarkable literary talent to its ranks, in order to spare them the voidance and exclusion of never being considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature, regardless of their literary achievements.

One can admire Karl Ragnar Gierow’s perceived level-headedness as an administrator with the Swedish Academy, both as its Chairman of the Nobel Committee and as the Permanent Secretary. I think credit should be given to Gierow for decisively steering the Nobel Prize in Literature to being a literary award, moving away from literal interpretations of Alfred Nobel’s will regarding the ambiguity of “an ideal direction,” and instead push the Swedish Academy to bypass political and ideological fracturing and review candidates on their basis of their substantial literary production, and reviewed as individuals of merit, not through the exterior lens of personal quality, be it nationality, gender, race, religious belief or political association. To further this point, Karl Ragnar Gierow acknowledged that previous laureates in the awards history would not be considered great writers, with many being mediocre decisions in hindsight and are doomed to be forgotten. Despite Karl Ragnar Gierow’s eloquent rationale and defense of reviewing nominations on an individual candidate and merit base, the fallout of the shared award in 1974 would have lasting repercussions and impact on the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Prize in Literature. 1973 provides a glimpse into the deliberations that would lead into the following year, which will surely be a rousing debate and discussions, finally providing the clarity regarding the academy’s decision to grossly overvalue their position as arbitrators of literary taste, while favouring their own members. 

Thank you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
M. Mary