2015 Nobel Prize : Literature


The_Nobel_Prize_in_LiteratureToday’s Nobel Award moves on from science to Literature. The leap from science to literature might appear odd, but is like this because Alfred Nobel within his will decreed it…

one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction

The written word is in many respects a profound concept – the idea that we can capture and persist thoughts, feelings, ideas, concepts, dreams and visions in a format that can live on long after the author has passed and be picked up and absorbed is truly astonishing. We take it for granted because we have been born with it and grown up in a world awash with a flow of written information.

It has perhaps been one of the most profound things we have ever done as a species, the very idea of persisting ideas so that then can then be picked up and learned, long after the original author has passed, is one of the foundations that enables us to actually have a civilisation, and so it is wholly appropriate that Literature should be one of the Nobel Prize categories.

How do they decide?

It might appear obvious and yet it is not. Ask yourself this – how can anybody ever reach any consensus on what merits this award because it falls very much into an area that is highly subjective. Basically it works like this …

  • Members of the Swedish Academy, members of literature academies and societies, professors of literature and language, former Nobel literature laureates, and the presidents of writers’ organizations are all allowed to nominate a candidate. (no you can’t nominate yourself, they have a rule about that)
  • They then distill that down to 20 by about April, then to 5 by May.
  • The subsequent four months are then spent in reading and reviewing the works  of the final 5, and yes the word works is plural, it is not just one book, but the body of work by the recipient that merits an award, so they have a lot of reading to do.
  • Finally they vote and so anybody who gets more than half the votes gets the prize.

It is perhaps worth paying attention to who wins this, both current and past, because what you have is a list of pointers to books you might consider having a go at reading. If such writing merits this award, then it might indeed be something that will open new windows of the mind for you as well. Past winners include some very well-known names … Doris LessingHarold PinterSeamus HeaneyWilliam GoldingSamuel BeckettJean-Paul SartreJohn SteinbeckSir Winston Leonard Spencer ChurchillWilliam FaulknerGeorge Bernard ShawWilliam Butler YeatsRudyard Kipling, and many more.

The 2015 Award

Svetlana Alexievich. Ill. N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media AB 2015.

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2015 is awarded to the Belarusian author

Svetlana Alexievich

“for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.

Who is Svetlana Alexievich?

Her Wikipedia page can be found here.

I’ve also stolen grabbed the following details from here …

Belarusian writer and investigative journalist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015, “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. Svetlana Alexievich is known for her meticulously reseached chonicles of modern history, such as the Soviet war in Afghanistan, fall of the Soviet Empire, and Chernobyl disaster. Her books are characterized by the use of multiple voices that record the emotional experience during the course of social upheavals. Alexievich writes in Russian.  

I don’t know what I should talk about – about death or about love? Or are they the same? Which one should I talk about? (from Voices from Chermobyl, 1997)

Svetlana Alexievich was born in Stanislav (now Ivano-Frankivsk) in western Ukraine. Her father was a Belarusian and mother a Ukrainian. Both of her parents were teachers. Alexievich began writing while still at school. After working as a teacher in a rural school, she entered the University of Minsk, where she studied journalism. Alexievich graduated in 1972 and then worked as a journalist in Beresa and then in Minsk. For a  period she was a correspondent for the literary magazine Neman, before becoming the head of the section for non-fiction. 

Her first book, I’ve Left My Village, was labelled anti-Communist and destroyed. In 1983 she completed War’s Unwomanly Face, which consisted of testimonies of hundreds of female WWII veterans. The book came out two years later in a censored form with many cuts. A new edition, in which Alexievich added some new material and restored the censored parts was published by the Palmira publishing house (Moscow) twenty years later. 

Zinky Boys (1989), about the Soviet-Afghan war, which contributed to the fall of the Soviet empire, drew on interviews of officers, soldiers, wives, mothers and widows. The title refers to the sealed zinc coffins in which the Sovied dead were shipped back. “I don’t want to hear any talk about a ‘political mistake’, OK? Give me my legs back if it was really a mistake,” says one of the officers. After the publication of the work, the KGB and military authorities organized a campaign of persecution against Alexievich. In 1993 the mothers of two veterans sued her for slandering the Soviet Army. The court confiscated all her tapes and files as evidence. 

Alexievich has been described as a writer of “literary reportage”. Her working process is heavily research led. For each of her books, she has interviewed hundreds of people, building up the work from fragments of  memories, images, fears, and hopes, which resonate together and reveal a kind of emotional history. It usually takes three or four years to complete a book. With Voices from Chernobyl, an oral history of the largest technologicl disaster of the twentieth century, Alexievich spent more than ten years. In the final version she included 107 interviews out of 500. There is a re-settler who thinks that “there was any Chernobyl, they made it up. They tricked people. My sister left with her husband. Not far from here, twenty kilometers. They lived there two months, and the neighbor comes running: ‘Your cow sent radiation to my cow! She’s falling down.’ ‘How’d she send it?’ ‘Through the air, that’s how, like dust. It flies.’ Just fairy tales! Stories and more stories.” The author herself, who was not satisfied with the reporting of the disaster in the media, says in her own monologue that “I often thought that the simple fact, the mechanical fact, no closer to the truth than a vague feeling, rumor, vision.”   

Following President Lukashenko’s increasing harassment of the opposition, she left her home country in 2000. Her works were not published in Belarus. Alexievich lived in Paris, Gothenburg and Paris. In 2011 she returned to Minsk. Alexievich writes in Russian, but she do not call herself a Russian or Belarusian writer. “I would say I’m a writer of that epoch, the Soviet utopia, writing the history of that utopia in each of my books,” Alexievich has said. She sees that  Belarusian language, which was revived at the end of 1980s, will never have the  upper hand in competition with the Russian language.   

Besides the Nobel Prize, Alexievich’s many awards include the Herder Prize (1999), the National Book Critics Circle Award (2005) for Voices from Chernobyl, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (2013), and the Prix Médicis essai (2013). 

In July 2014 Alexievich wrote in Le Monde, that the annexion of Crimea to Russia revealed the country’s return to fundamentalism, to the dream of being a great empire and  inspire fear. “Empty shelves in stores and long lines for toilet papers may be things of the past in Russia, but affluence never led to democracy in Russia. It only helped an imperialistic mindset resurface.”

Is there anything in English?

In a word … yes …

… and yes, you can find her books on Amazon (click here).

Since today is her day, I think she should have the last word …

“Reality has always attracted me like a magnet, tortured and hypnotized me, and I wanted to capture it on paper. So I immediately appropriated this genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents. This is how I hear and see the world—as a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details. In this way all my mental and emotional potential is realized to the full. In this way I can be simultaneously a writer, reporter, sociologist, psychologist and preacher.” 
― Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

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