announced this month, the name "Herta Muller"
met much American head-scratching.
Muller, an ethnically German Romanian
who writes of trials of living under
a repressive dictatorship, has a strong
reputation in Europe that hasn't gained
much momentum in the U.S.
Coming as it did on the heels of last
year's choice, French author Jean-Marie
Gustave Le Clézio -- few of whose works
had been translated into
English -- the selection made
some wonder whether the prize
is becoming increasingly esoteric.
Not to mention, in the case of
Le Clézio's award, wrongheaded.
His landmark 1980 work "Desert," recently
released in translation in the U.S.,
is, our reviewer writes, "a truly dreadful book."
But it hasn't always been this way.
A look at the list of Nobel literature
laureates is stunning. Just a few: Rudyard Kipling,
Thomas Mann, Gabriel Garcia Marquez,
William Butler Yeats, Hermann Hesse,
T.S. Eliot, Andre Gide, Albert Camus,
Jose Saramago, V.S. Naipaul,
Naguib Mahfouz, Gunter Grass,
Jean-Paul Sartre, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn,
Octavio Paz. And many
Americans: William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis,
Pearl S. Buck, Eugene O'Neill,
Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck,
Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison.
It's enough to inspire
a years-long reading binge.
Some Nobel laureates have been forgotten.
The first, French poet and essayist
Sully Prudhomme, has not exactly
remained a household name
since receiving the prize in 1901.
And then there's Knut Hamsun.
The Norwegian author's book "Hunger"
(1890) was praised both as
a modernist work and for
its critique of modernity. When he won
the Nobel in 1920, he was thought of
as a leading humanist, but 20 years later,
he became a Nazi.
An enthusiastic one: after meeting
Joseph Goebbels, he mailed him
his Nobel medal in admiration.
After the war, he was found
guilty of crimes against Norway.
This is the 150th anniversary
of Hamsun's birth, which is being
celebrated in his home country.
Two new books return to his difficult legacy,
looking simultaneously at his politics
and his prose.
In our pages today, Matthew Shaer
looks at "Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and
Dissenter" by Ingar Sletten Kolloen and
"Knut Hamsun: The Dark Side
of Literary Brilliance" by Monika Zagar.
To thrive, an artist must leave the city
for the rough living of the country.
He must immerse himself
[Hamsun wrote] in "the unpredictable
chaos of perception, the delicate life
of the imagination held under
the microscope; the meanderings
of these thoughts and feelings
in the blue, trackless,
traceless journeys of the heart
and mind, curious workings of the psyche,
the whisperings of the blood,
prayers of the bone,
the entire unconscious life of the mind."
In his prime, Hamsun always wrote
like this -- beautifully, poetically and savagely. ...
And yet Hamsun, personally
and politically, was a monster.
Without "Hunger," Shaer writes,
we would not have Kafka's "A Hunger Artist."
That's one measure -- and the Nobel
is another -- that marks it as
an important work, one that should
Or should it?
If Hamsun's work is evaluated
through the lens of his politics,
is he better forgotten?
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Sent from Kigali, Rwanda