Members of the Swedish Academy were surely relieved to see that questions raised about their choice focused primarily on literary merit. For the Academy had been mired in scandal since November 2017, when 18 women accused one member’s husband of sexual misconduct; he was also accused of leaking the names of seven prize winners to friends, who then placed bets on them. Five Academy members had resigned by the summer of 2018, when it was announced that no prize would be awarded that fall. And the pair of prizes awarded the next fall — the 2018 prize to the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk and the 2019 prize to the Austrian writer Peter Handke — fed the perception of an Academy in disarray. The decision to honor Tokarczuk was widely praised; Handke, not so much. Journalists who had covered the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia were quick to call attention to Handke’s infamous apologia for the crimes against humanity committed by Serbian forces, A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia (1996), and his eulogy for Slobodan Milošević, the former president of Yugoslavia who died in a prison cell in The Hague during his trial for war crimes. How to square Handke’s literary achievement with his embrace of a reprehensible cause? No one expects writers and artists to be models of rectitude, but is it too much to ask them not to praise war criminals? It was a pity that Tokarczuk’s remarkable work was linked in the public mind with a genocide denier. What she wrote in Flights seemed apropos: “Nothing is innocent, and nothing is insignificant, it’s all a big endless puzzle.”
Imaginative solutions to that puzzle are on offer in Daniel Simon’s new anthology, Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, which reads like minutes from a shadow academy of letters. Based at the University of Oklahoma and sponsored by the journal World Literature Today, the biennial prize, which The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have compared to the Nobel, has gone to several writers who have subsequently won the Nobel (Gabriel García Márquez, Czesław Miłosz, Octavio Paz, and Tomas Tranströmer), while a number of others have deserved to mount the podium in Stockholm: Francis Ponge, Elizabeth Bishop, Kamau Brathwaite, Assia Djebar, Patricia Grace, Mia Couto, and the 2020 awardee, Ismail Kadare, the Albanian writer whose odds of winning either the 2018 or 2019 Nobel were 21 to one; there were no odds on him winning this year.
What these writers have in common is that they often hail from parts of the world ignored or overlooked by the Swedish Academy, which in this century has honored Europeans 14 times. The Neustadt, which was the brainchild of the late Latvian-born Estonian poet and scholar Ivar Ivask, wisely changes its international jury for each award cycle, which helps to explain the diversity of its selections. In his statement issued upon receiving the Neustadt in 1972, García Márquez neatly summed up its unique meaning and place in the world of letters:
This is a prize that has taken shape in the fertile imagination of a native of Estonia who has attempted to invent — rather than dynamite — a literary prize that would be dynamite for the Nobel. It is a prize in the mythical Oklahoma of Kafka’s dreams and the land of the unique rose rock, and has been awarded to a writer from a remote and mysterious country in Latin America nominated by a great writer from far-off Iceland [Thor Vilhjálmsson]. These circumstances suffice to make the […] Neustadt International Prize for Literature the one great international prize for highly deserving writers who are not yet well known.
The magical realist’s ironic reference to the source of Alfred Nobel’s fortune, which, of course, also funds the Peace Prize, and invocation of Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared, in the last chapter of which the teenaged protagonist boards a train for the mythical Nature Theater of Oklahoma, is a fine illustration of the pleasures on offer in Dispatches from the Republic of Letters. Here are 25 acceptance speeches, which range in length from a single paragraph to a dozen pages, and often raise important issues (about which more in a moment), along with a series of accompanying essays by distinguished jurors, who not only celebrate the honorees’ literary achievements but situate them in larger social and political contexts.
Thus, Joseph Brodsky argues in “The Whispered Guilt of the Survivor” that Czesław Miłosz was compelled to describe in his poetry the wasteland, physical and spiritual, born of World War II and the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. But Miłosz’s preoccupations, he continues, are metaphysical, and one virtue of his poetry is that it “releases the reader from many psychological and purely linguistic traps, for it answers not the question ‘how to live’ but ‘for the sake of what’ to live.” Thirty years of exile from his native land, Miłosz observes in his acceptance speech, have not dimmed his ardor for writing in Polish. “One of the central attributes of poetry is its ability to give affirmation to things of this world,” he notes, and he regards his desire to praise the fact that humans are capable of love and sacrifice as a vital counterweight to certain poems, including his own, that are filled with the horror and suffering of the 20th century.
Miłosz concludes that the Neustadt Prize, like poetry itself, belongs “to those things which should not exist, because they are against the dark and immutable order of the world.” Octavio Paz suggests that the practice of rotating juries of critics and writers from different languages and literary traditions makes the prize truly international, because it embodies the notions of universality and plurality. And I would add that these essays about the writers round out our picture of them. Thus, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o argues that Kamau Braithwaite “is a connecting spirit. Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and now America, all important landmarks in his life and thought, find expression in his work in their impact on one another.” In his acceptance speech, which reads like a poem, Braithwaite ends with “a plea for continued conversation among ourselves” — which is a good description of Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: it is conversation of the highest order.
The Algerian novelist Assia Djebar, mindful of the ways in which women in Afghanistan, Iran, and her native land have been victimized, silenced, or forced to flee, explained that her work is a form of protest that “develops within fictions which I hope might become an ‘open door’ for those women who live under the threat of an atavistic fundamentalism.” Doubting the utility and impact of her imaginative writings, she nevertheless suggested that “perhaps [her] books can prolong the echo of the voices of so many other women — not all of whom are necessarily intellectuals or artists — those who keep as their hope the power of their dreams, the tenacity of their memory, and especially the unshakeable force of their revolt.” Think of her novels, then, as an ingenious means of enlarging the circle of conversation vital to literature down through the ages.
I am writing on the evening of January 6, in the midst of an insurrection incited by President Trump and carried out by a mob of his supporters, who stormed and then occupied the Capitol for several hours, after which nearly 150 Republican legislators objected to the certification of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris’s election from two months prior. Questions of literary merit paled this afternoon in the face of marauders rampaging through the Capitol, and as these acts of domestic terrorism were broadcast around the world, it came to me that these sorts of terrible incidents, which for many Americans had seemed unimaginable, were in one form or another well known to most of the writers honored in Dispatches from the Republic of Letters. Which is another reason why we must heed their witnessing. It is too late to imagine that, as many pundits and politicians now claim, what unfolded in the Capitol is not America. This is indeed America. And if we hope to gain some insight about the true state of the nation’s soul, we might consider how these writers stared into different abysses in their own countries and produced imaginative works that see all too clearly.
Let me close on a different note, however, with the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee’s banquet speech on the eve of his Nobel lecture, which puts literary prizes into perspective:
The other day, suddenly, out of the blue, while we were talking about something completely different, my partner Dorothy burst out as follows: “On the other hand,” she said, “on the other hand, how proud your mother would have been! What a pity she isn’t still alive! And your father too! How proud they would have been of you!”
“Even prouder than of my son the doctor?” I said. “Even prouder than of my son the professor?”
“If my mother were still alive,” I said, “she would be ninety-nine and a half. She would probably have senile dementia. She would not know what was going on around her.”
But of course I missed the point. Dorothy was right. My mother would have been bursting with pride. My son the Nobel Prize winner. And for whom, anyway, do we do the things that lead to Nobel Prizes if not for our mothers?
“Mommy, Mommy, I won a prize!”
“That’s wonderful, my dear. Now eat your carrots before they get cold.”
Why must our mothers be ninety-nine and long in the grave before we can come running home with the prize that will make up for all the trouble we have been to them?
Christopher Merrill directs the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.