Nobel Pablum

When Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio was awarded the Nobel Prize this October for work remarkable -- as the Nobel committee described it -- for "poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy," few in America knew who he was. Born in France, but raised in Mauritius and Nigeria, he had made scant literary impact on our country although he was dedicated to writing about the poor, the marginalized and this hemisphere's indigenous population. Much of the time, he was actually right here in our backyard, in New Mexico.

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, talks to reporters in Stockholm on Dec. 6.(Bob Strong/Reuters)

(Full disclosure: We did know of him, actually. Book World reviewed a few of his books as long as 14 years ago, most notably "The Mexican Dream" and "The Prospector.")

So the world waited anxiously to hear what this stealth laureate--a specialist, supposedly, in Third World concerns--would have to say in Stockholm last Wednesday, Dec. 10, as he accepted his prize.

What we heard wasn't exactly earthshaking. Nor poetic, nor adventurous, or even sensually ecstatic. And certainly not worthy of one of the most important pulpits in the modern world.

The crux of his statement was a quote from a fiction writer little known outside Sweden, Stig Dagerman:

"How is it possible, on the one hand, for example, to behave as if nothing on earth were more important than literature, and on the other fail to see that wherever one looks, people are struggling against hunger and will necessarily consider that the most important thing is what they earn at the end of the month? Because this is where he (the writer) is confronted with a new paradox: while all he wanted was to write for those who are hungry, he now discovers that it is only those who have plenty to eat who have the leisure to take notice of his existence."

Translation: The writer who works to lift up the poor will quickly find that the poor have more urgent things to think about than literature. Le Clezio called it our "forest of paradoxes."

It was a lazy citation, written to please his Swedish jurors. Dagerman, after all, is nowhere more revered than in Sweden, where prizes are given in his honor. In a country with a tiny literary heritage, Le Clezio was preaching to the choir.

Le Clezio went on to say that the world is divided among the haves and the have nots: those who have access to digital technology and so will thrive, and those who do not and will languish.

Is this anything new? Is this worth a Nobel lecture? As early as seven years ago, it was reported that the technological divide was already there and gaping. Whereas half of the households in Britain were already online in 2002, only .1% of those in Bangladesh could claim any connectivity. Today, three quarters of North Americans use the Internet, whereas only 5% of Africans do. In the United States, we struggle to give children in poor communities the Web fluency we're well aware could determine their futures.

In other words, it's something the world doesn't need to be told. We know it. Despite Tom Friedman's claims that technology has made the world flat, it takes money and equipment to access the Internet. Money the poor don't have.

Le Clezio might have offered fresher insights into the two worlds--books and poverty--he claims to know so well. At at a time when we need to understand what literature can offer the technologically advantaged as well as the disadvantaged, all he gave us was something we already know.

-- Marie Arana

By Marie Arana |  December 15, 2008; 8:01 AM ET Marie Arana
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Your comments on Le Clezio's recent Nobel address were interesting on several levels. There's no doubt that access to internet technology is a great enabler. Last year in a TED talk, Hector Ruiz of AMD talked about their goal of having 50% of the world with internet access by 2015.

I would be interested in some Nobel addresses you found most worthy. I remember once reading that Selma Lagerlof's address is known for being both charming and unusual: She said she planned to use the prize money to buy back Marbacka, the family farm and home, which her father had lost in later life due to alcoholism. She told in the address that on the train trip to Stockholm she imagined telling her father in Paradise of the award and her plans. "His ears filled with tears." Also, do you have an opinion on Faulkner's address?

Finally, you've chaired or served on award selection committees. If you were a controlling part of the Swedish Academy, what Americans do you feel most deserving? Also, if you were to make the case for a more quirky American choice, who might that be?

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | December 16, 2008 2:52 PM

Thanks very much for this.
The best recent Nobel address I've read was Orhan Pamuk's. You can find it on the Internet. Read it. It tells you a great deal about writers and how they think and live. It tells you, too, about the nature of good writing, which is, at its deepest level, about dissidence. I do not mean political.
The Swedish Academy's most recent choice of Americans was Toni Morrison, which means they understand the breadth of American writing, but I wonder how deeply they're looking at what Americans write, and whether they're seeing beyond the labels. Have they looked at the astonishing boom of American bicultural writers? From South Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, etc.? Have they considered the work of someone who is continuously plowing a new row? I'm talking about Cormac McCarthy. Or Marilynne Robinson. Not to mention those writers who burrow the same hole astonishingly well: DeLillo, Pynchon, Roth. There are many, many. Their choices might surprise us.
--Marie Arana

Posted by: aranam1 | December 16, 2008 11:01 PM

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