A Nobel Endeavor

A Nobel Endeavor

Book Reviews by Mark Anderson, MD, FACP

I have always been intrigued by the Nobel Prize for literature and have discovered many of my favorite writers after they won it - Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Naguib Mafouz are the two most notable. As in any award, especially when only one is given for the entire world per year, the Nobel has been often criticized. Probably not even the Nobel Peace Prize is more hotly disagreed with from year to year. Comments have been made such as: "it has rescued writers from well-deserved obscurity," "I would prefer to be among the distinguished writers who were not given the prize," "the committee was concerned with making a statement or choosing from a writer from an approved background over and above consideration of writing talent."

Despite criticisms however, most still consider the Nobel the most prestigious literary prize of them all. For this reason, I have set out on the quixotic quest of reading all of the Nobel laureates. There are many I have read already, and have even had the pleasure of seeing personal favorites selected (Ahh, they agree with me!) such as Nadine Gordimer and V. S. Naipaul. Since the first prize was awarded in 1900, this involves around 100 writers - some years, no prize was given, some years two were awarded. I have encountered some difficulty obtaining works by some writers, even some who won as recently as 30 years ago - I got one English translation of a Swedish laureate's novel by using a British web site that connected me with an Australian used bookseller!

I would like discuss two writers I have read recently. The first is Imre Kertész, the 2002 and most recent winner. He is a native of Hungary, and is the first actual concentration camp survivor to win the prize. He is cited by the Nobel committee thus: "upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history."

I read a novel called Sorstalanag (Fateless), the first book of a trilogy loosely based on the writer's own life. In it, a 15 year old Jewish boy gives a first person account of being rounded up in a sweep for Jews in his home city in Hungary. He is then sent to several concentration camps including Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He narrowly and repeatedly escapes death, often with no explanation other than chance. The narrator is unaware of the big picture and so can only place the evil he encounters in an uninformed 15 year- old framework. His account often almost seems detached and mundane, but when you know and understand the significance of what is happening around the narrator, you are shaken to the core. The prose is sparse, straightforward, powerful.

I was skeptical when the Nobel committee chose someone I had not even heard of but now feel grateful for their bringing this moving, talented writer to the attention of the world. Even those who feel they have read all they can stand about the Holocaust still need to read Imre Kertész - for the beauty of his writing and the power of his story.

Another Nobel Laureate I recently read was 1981 winner Elias Canetti. He was born in Bulgaria in 1905 and wrote in German, his fourth language. His best known writing is Crowds and Power, a study of mass movements, death and disordered society. The crowd instinct and the danger associated with it are the constant themes of all of his writing. He was of course much influenced by the abuses of Nazism that he personally witnessed in Europe.

I read what is considered his "break-through" work, as far as reaching public notice - a novel called Die Blendung (Auto-da-Fé). It tells the tale of Peter Kien, a philologist and Sinologist, and the preeminent scholar of his academic world. His obsession is his magnificent library; an obsession which borders on madness. There can be both a sense of understanding as well as discomfort in those of us who cherish our own personal libraries. Professor Klein communes well with his 25,000 books but is rather inept in all human relations - in fact, he goes out of his way to avoid human contact. When he does make a connection with someone, his offish housekeeper Therese, his life quickly descends to new surrealistic depths and he becomes increasingly "exposed" to "crowds" of people. His downfall is aided by one who he had previously thought of as helpful: the caretaker Pfaff - the very model of a fascist. His carefully constructed world, even a world constructed by a brilliant mind, crumbles under the influence of those with the basest of motives.

This dense and nightmarish novel exposes many of our worst fears of relationship with others - both individual and groups of people. Though much labor was required to make my way through to its end, I felt I had gained from a man who had made a careful study of our modern societies' relationships as well as experienced them at their worst in mid-twentieth century Europe.

Mark Anderson specializes in infectious diseases in Chattanooga, Tennessee.