Once again, the Swedish Academy has selected a virtual unknown as its Nobel laureate in literature, Romanian-born German novelist/poet Herta Müller. Herta who?, you ask. You’re not alone. Müller is a writer who ranked far, far down the list at the bookmakers Ladbrokes (at least until the last few days, when she became a virtual co-favorite with Amos Oz, as Michael Orthofer at the Literary Saloon noted yesterday). Only a handful of her books have been translated into English, and most of those appear to be semi-autobiographical novels about erudite young women of German ancestry who grew up in, and struggled against, the now-fallen Communist regime in late-20th-century Romania.
The books themselves sound, um, daunting. Take The Appointment, a 1997 novel that was published in the U.S. in 2001 (and seems to be the most recent Müller work to appear in English). “The Appointment is more a test of endurance than pleasure,” Peter Filkins wrote in his review in the New York Times, adding that it’s “the kind of novel you might be glad you finished, but sorry that you started, no matter the bleak complexity within it.” Kind of makes you want to click over to Amazon right about now and order a copy for rush delivery, doesn’t it? (Note: Only used copies seem to be available right now.)
I am, admittedly, a myopic American who’s poorly read in non-English-language literature (and only spottily read in English-language classics for that matter). But does the Nobel imprimatur really compel me to pore through the works of Müller — or last year’s comparably unfamiliar laureate, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio? I think not. The Nobel ranks are cluttered with writers who’ve sunk into obscurity and irrelevance, sometimes deservedly so. Do Swedes still read the work of 1916 laureate Verner von Heidenstam? Does anyone think 1938 winner Pearl Buck was one of the top 100 writers of the 20th century?
At its best, the Nobel Prize shines a spotlight on a truly great writer — and sometimes the literature of an entire nation — that’s unfamiliar to readers outside of the writer’s country. It challenges us to think (and read) outside our America-centric comfort zone. Without the Nobel, for instance, I would never have discovered the witty and insightful poetry of Poland’s 1996 laureate Wislawa Szymborska. And the 2006 Nobel for Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk cemented his growing status as a lit phenom (which had been building since the 2004 U.S. publication of his novel Snow).
But what do you think? Do prizes like the Nobel matter when you decide to read a book? Are you tempted to check out Herta Müller? Do works in translation seem too off-putting, like a book-length game of telephone?