6 oct. 2011

The Nobel Goes To

Tranströmer. What was I just saying about giving it to figures who were more relevant in the 1970s, like Varguitas last year? TT was translated by Bly and enjoyed a vogue 35-40 years ago. They probably had more information in Sweden about his health and realized it was now or never for the local hero, but this kind of award just makes literature seem even more irrelevant than it already was.

29 comentarios:

Clarissa dijo...

I have no idea who Tranströmer is but I like Sweden, so good for them.

This is what the Nobel is, a way of expressing goodwill towards countries.

Spanish prof dijo...

I've never heard of the guy. I think another way to look at the Nobel Prizes is that (not always)it allows a certain audience to discover great works of literature, even if they were written 40 years ago. As an example, my MIL is an avid reader of what could be called "Oprah Book Club" fiction. Last year, after Vargas Llosa won the Prize, she went out and bought "Conversacion en la Catedral" (in English, of course).

I had nothing to do with it.I know how to recommend movies to different audiences, but I can't do the same with literature. Last Christmas, we actually spent an after dinner talking about Vargas Llosa. She had really liked it. I don't think she read anything else by him, but the Nobel Prize was an opportunity for her to read some good literature. And I think she is not an unique case, there may be a lot of people like my MIL.

Jonathan dijo...

Good point. I'm surprised that the above average Spanish professor has not heard of Transtromer. I wouldn't be sorry to see him have another brief moment of glory. The guy is 80, half-paralyzed from a stroke.

Spanish prof dijo...

"I'm surprised that the above average Spanish professor has not heard of Transtromer"

In my case, I grew up in Argentina, and it may be related to two different things:

a) Translation and the market. What is translated into Spanish (and therefore a publishing house thinks will not lose money on), and what does arrive to an Argentine bookstore?

b) What counts as cultural capital in Argentina. It is quite particular and unique. I'm not talking about trends here, but what every person who considers himself or herself "cultivated" should know. To give you an example, Anglo-saxon literature is not so popular in intellectual circles. You must know French writers and poets, for sure. Kawabata and Mishima are also widely read. German and Austrians from the beginning of the XXth century too. Then you had to read the great realist novels of the XIXth century. And the Russians. But I think that as far as Sweeden goes, they stopped with Ingmar Bergman.

Vance Maverick dijo...

I think I first came across Tranströmer on the bus in the '90s, during one of those initiatives to put up poetry in public spaces. I remember it as OK, whimsical but constrained, evidently not only by the size of a bus advertising card but by the translation into English. Not quite enough strangeness leaked through to overcome the bland word choices.

Amateur Reader (Tom) dijo...

"Anglo-Saxon literature is not so popular in intellectual circles" in Argentina - is this some sort of reaction to Borges' enthusiasm? Or did Borges simply fail?

I had certainly heard of Tranströmer. I knew him as a perpetual front-runner for the Nobel Prize! We do not need the actual prize to express goodwill and disseminate names. We just need the oddsmaker's list.

Spanish prof dijo...

I don't see it as a reaction to Borges, but more about Argentina's intellectual history per se, always extremely influenced by France. It is probably also a reaction to a concrete economic and political situation: the US as a growing threat in the late XIXth century, and Britain control of Argentina's economy until the 1930s. They are not Argentinean, but if you read Rodo's "Ariel" and Jose Marti's "Nuestra America", you'll find examples of what I am talking about.

I read quite a bit of British literature, but I barely know the basics about U.S literature.

Amateur Reader (Tom) dijo...

Ah, thanks. I asked for two reasons.

1. I'm on a 19th century Portuguese & Brazilian kick, and I am beginning to see those countries much as you describe Argentina: French cultural power, English economic power.

2. Borges was such a great champion of Anglo-Saxon literature, back to Beowulf, but I had no idea what kind of influence he might have had.

So thanks for the helpful answers.

Jonathan dijo...

Not even Borges had enough influence to make Anglo Saxon a priority in the Southern Cone, when it is not even in a priority in the Anglo-Saxon world, unless you are getting an actual PhD in English.

Vance Maverick dijo...

I think Spanish prof is using "Anglo-Saxon" as an ethnic term rather than a linguistic one. (Not that he/she is classing Tranströmer in the ethnicity.)

Spanish prof dijo...

I am basically talking about British and US literature. I apologize if I made a mistake. Believe it or not, some days, words are not my thing. That's why I have devoted the last two days to reading instead of writing.

Vance Maverick dijo...

Sorry, my fumble there -- AS as ethnicity is pretty US-specific I think, while AS for the modern cultural/linguistic Anglosphere is more widespread. (I know it from Italian, and evidently it's there in Spanish too.)

Spanish prof dijo...

I like it when I learn something new at the end of the day. Thanks.

Elisa dijo...

I don't read a lot of poetry in translation (not enough anyway) but I am familiar with and like Transtromer. Just wanted to say I don't see the Nobel in literature as having anything to do with relevance, it's always felt more like a lifetime achievement award.

As an interesting counterpoint, I'd heard people complain that the Nobels in science go to trendy stuff but not work with any real impact on the world.

Jonathan dijo...

It was Borges that threw me off there. It turns out that Borges was very interested in Anglo-Saxon (Old English, Beowulf, etc...) AS WELL as in Anglo-Saxon (British, American, etc...), so I took the first reference to Anglo Saxon that someone made in this thread in the first sense, rather than the more general sense. For example, there is a poem of Borges where he talks of "La lengua de los ásperos sajones" and he means the medieval tribe of Saxons, not the modern English tongue.

Amateur Reader (Tom) dijo...

Well, that's what threw me off, too. I have a strong mental association between Argentinean literature and Old English literature, as well as later writers like Stevenson and Kipling, all because of Borges.

Jonathan dijo...

Right, if we knew much less about Borges, we wouldn't have been confused. When you understood Spanish Prof to be talking about Old English, I naturally understood both of you to be talking about the same thing rather than reading her post in its original sense.

Spanish prof dijo...

You know more about Borges than I do, I think.

Spanish prof dijo...

And I thought Literature Nobel Prizes were controversial. Apparently this year Medicine Nobel Prize pissed off some people:
http://scienceblogs.com/webeasties/2011/10/a_bitter_sweet_nobel_-_beutler.php

Professor Zero dijo...

I object to the suggestion that Swedish literature is part of the British - American tradition, and I disagree that Tranströmer is not known in Spanish; he's known to poetry people although as you say, he's kind of old news and maybe younger people don't know him. I like his work, but not his friend Robert Bly's; the friendship makes me like Tranströmer less than I otherwise might. Anyway, good points up thread on the prize from Elisa... I am just glad they didn't go and give it to Dylan.

Vance Maverick dijo...

Maybe Spanish prof meant that Tranströmer writes in Anglo-Saxon?

(Seriously, look up at comment 4, point b) above -- that wasn't the claim.)

Jonathan dijo...

Nobody was really suggesting that TT was Anglo-Saxon, just that that patterns of literary knowledge were a bit different in Argentina, where you might know Kawabata but not someone from the Anglo-Saxon world.

Spanish prof dijo...

Exactly what Jonathan says.

Joseph Hutchison dijo...

This is the silliest post I've seen on your generally fine blog. Tranströmer is a major world poet, as illustrated by the fact that his work has been translated into 60-some languages. The question of "relevance" is meaningless because the term is meaningless—especially when you seem to define it in terms of what's "in vogue" in the United States (for that is the "vogue" you're referring to with Tranströmer and Bly, yes?). Anyway, you might consider defining "relevance" for us and providing some examples of "relevant" writers who should have been honored instead of Tranströmer.

Jonathan dijo...

Relevant to some conversation or debate people are having right now about literature. Murakami, for example, or Gamoneda. It's fine to give it to Transtromer,of course, but I think it would have been more appropriate 30 years ago. Otherwise it's consecrating the already consecrated.I feel the same way about Vargas Llosa who won last year. I would have felt the same way about a prize given in 1911 to a writer at the height of her powers in 1860 or 70. I'm sure, since he's paralyzed and in ill health, they thought it was now or never.

Vance Maverick dijo...

It seems to me that Joseph and Jonathan are in agreement that the winner this year is consistent with the policy and pattern of the award through its history. (Well, once it got past the Scandinaviacentric early years.) You just disagree about whether that's desirable.

Joseph Hutchison dijo...

Surely part of the function of Nobels is to introduce us to writers unknown to us. No surprise that not every writer will be to our taste—hence the carping going on over Tranströmer. And if relevance is the criteria, Jonathan is right: the Nobel tends to honor a lifetime's work now, rather than a single work by a writer at the height of his or her powers. It's the long view vs. the short view, it seems to me. The short view yields writers like Elfriede Jelinek (58 when she won); the long view yields writers like Tranströmer and last year's Vargas Llosa. Personally, I find "relevance" a meaningless yardstick, so I prefer the long view, which I take to be based on an impression of lasting value. This may explain why I'm currently reading Hölderlin, Theodor Storm, and Lawrence Durrell instead of Murakami (never read him) or Gamoneda (never heard of him). Maybe we need an international version of the MacArthur Fellowship to serve as a shadow-Nobel, since these awards are based on a version of Jonathan's criteria: "Exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work."

Jonathan dijo...

Well said, Joseph.

Lyle Daggett dijo...

I first read Transtromer's poems more than 35 years ago, in the selection (translated by Robert Bly, in a bilingual edition) Friends, You Drank Some Darkness. I deeply loved his poems when I first read them, and I've read whatever I could get my hands on by him in the years since, in various translations.

Transtromer's poems often seem to me to have a marked quality of understatement, and a deeply interior quality, that seem to cause difficulty for some translators; some of the translations I've read (those by May Swenson and Robin Fulton, for instance) often seem to me to miss something of the iron weight that anchors most of his poems.

Bly's translations sometimes have their problems as well, though on balance I prefer them to Swenson's and Fulton's. I also like Samuel Charters' wonderful translation of Transtromer's Baltics.

In the early 1960's, in his poem titled (in one possible translation) "After Someone's Death" -- written initially about the death of his uncle, though written also around the time of John Kennedy's assassination -- Transtromer writes, in the final stanza:

It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat.
But often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

(This is from Bly's translation; a friend who majored in Swedish years ago at the U. of Minnesota also translated the poem, as a favor to me, and her translation was pretty much identical to Bly's.)

I read your brief post below regarding the passing of Steve Jobs. In light of your comments in that post, I find it hard to think of Transtromer's poetry (and certainly the lines I quoted above) as lacking relevance "to some conversation or debate people are having right now about literature.

A lot of the Nobel choices over the years have struck me as odd, and I have my own list (as I'm sure many of us do) of writers we think are deserving of such a prize. As things go, this isn't a high priority concern for me as such. But I have no problem with Transtromer getting the prize.