Friday, October 23, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Beckett Wins, Mailer Loses, Nobel Prize)

October 23, 1969—The committee deciding the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded it to Samuel Beckett, a 63-year-old Irish expatriate who liked to let his cryptic novels and plays do his talking for him.

By giving it to someone who hardly cared a fig for the attention, the Swedish Academy annoyed Norman Mailer, an extraordinarily voluble 46-year-old American who frittered his considerable energies away on misconceived novels, vanity film projects and quixotic political posturing (such as in the image accompanying this post, showing him in the middle of a 1969 mayoral campaign in New York City that was already choking with candidates).

In an interview in today’s issue of The Wall Street Journal, Philip Roth offers a mordant morsel of wisdom about the Swedish Academy and its award that, one wishes, Stormin’ Norman might have taken to heart: “I don’t expect anything from them. And they usually reward my expectations.”

In the winter of 1981, I covered for my college paper Mailer's appearance at the university’s school of the arts. I marveled not only at the glittering images and phrases that sprang spontaneously from him, but also his ironic send-up of his own well-known ego. After he finished writing his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), Mailer related, he felt like “the biggest thing since Tolstoy—maybe even bigger than Tolstoy.” Re-reading it not so long later, he loathed it.

Mailer must certainly have felt in Tolstoyan territory when he got wind of a rumor that he was up for the Nobel Prize. The writer he emulated perhaps the most, Ernest Hemingway, had tried for a similarly weighty treatment of love and war in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and, 14 years later, he received the coveted prize.

When it came to the Nobel, Mailer might have had second thoughts about anything Tolstoyan. Amazingly, the Swedish Academy never presented the award to the great Russian novelist, even though he wrote for at least a decade after the awards were first presented. (Something, it was later revealed, having to do with the writer’s “"theoretical anarchism and mystical Christianity.")

Most authors, when snubbed by the group, confine their disappointment to their circle of friends. “You were my second choice,” John O’Hara write to his dear friend (and ’62 laureate) John Steinbeck.

Not Mailer, though. In The Prisoner of Sex, his argument with feminism published two years later, he opened with a vignette that, by almost any stretch of the imagination, would have to be called off-topic: i.e., the rumor that he was up for the Nobel Prize.
At first, the rumor set off the predictable Pavlovian response: “After twenty-one years of public life, he [there it is again, that Henry Adams-style use of the third person, thereby circumventing the usual observations—like here!—about the author’s egotism] had the equivalent of a Geiger counter in his brain to measure the radiation of advancements and awards in the various salients, wedges, and vectors of that aesthetic battlefield known as the literary pie."

Mailer then claimed that it was best that he didn't receive the award, as it would have "incarcerated him into a larger paralysis.” Do you believe him? I don’t.

Over the last 50 or so years, we Americans have gotten used to revelations about behind-the-scenes doings of Presidential campaigns, of the Supreme Court, even papal elections. In contrast, the deliberations of the Nobel committee seemed a closely held secret of some inner sanctum.

I was wrong—I just hadn’t looked that far or read enough. (Thereby undoubtedly confirming that group’s snotty dismissal of the “insularity” of American writers and the readers who keep them together, body and soul!) Then I came across this New Yorker article, from 11 years ago, by Michael Specter. It turns out that the six-person committee that makes recommendations for the finalists to the larger Swedish Academy has periodic brouhahas that explode into the open in the Scandinavian press.

And, if Mailer ever had occasion to look back on his regrets before he died nearly two years ago, he could have taken solace in his loss of the Nobel by considering that some laureates—even of recent years—are generally considered substandard, including playwright Dario Fo.

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