A Rare Swedish Triumph

The Swedish Academy doesn’t always get it wrong. It just seems that way. Since 1901, when the first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the French poet Sully Prudhomme—a name seldom on anyone’s tongue, even then—the academy’s choices have often been not just wrong-headed but capriciously so. Though the prize has gone to such universally acclaimed writers as Thomas Mann and William Butler Yeats, William Faulkner and T.S. Eliot, it’s hard to understand how so many others have been passed over. To ignore Tolstoy, Henry James, Proust, Joyce, Rilke, Lorca, Robert Musil, Virginia Woolf, Borges, R.K. Narayan, Graham Greene, along with a few dozen others, argues a level of obtuseness rising almost to the sublime.

Laurels to come: Mario Vargas Llosa in 2009

It’s one thing to pass over great and worthy authors—often, apparently, for political or personal reasons, as in the cases of Borges or Greene—but quite another to pass them over for arrant mediocrities, as well as the occasional buffoon. The word isn’t too strong. One symptom of decline came with the choice, in 1997, of Dario Fo, an Italian clown (literally) though one with impeccable Marxist credentials. Mr. Fo’s award may account for the persistent rumors, in recent years, of Bob Dylan’s candidacy. Mr. Dylan is a great singer and songwriter but his contribution to literature, at least as usually understood, is zilch. Still, awarding him the prize would have been preferable to the 2004 choice of the Austrian misanthrope Elfriede Jelinek, a novelist incapable of creating a credible character or of writing a single shapely sentence. With this disastrous choice the academy hit rock bottom.

You could claim, of course, that such decisions show how daring the Swedish Academy has become behind its solemn façade. But in some years the choices seem to be made by schnapps-befuddled academicians flinging darts blindly at a spinning globe. The academy has a soft spot for what might be called emigres— “portmanteau writers,” you might call them—such as last year’s winner Herta Müller, a German writer from Romania. The epitome of this came as far back as 1981 with the award to Elias Canetti, a Ladino-speaking Bulgarian-born German writer who resided in London. You can’t get much more “multi-culti” than that. This isn’t to say that such authors are unworthy but that the choices are made for reasons that aren’t strictly literary. The academy is intensively lobbied by fans and supporters, often with nationalistic agendas—and sometimes by the hopefuls themselves. The Turkish novelist Yashar Kemal went so far as to rent an apartment directly across the street from the academy’s headquarters where he displayed himself conspicuously at opportune moments. Others engage in drawn-out and loudly publicized reading tours of the Swedish countryside.

This year, I’m glad to say, the Swedish Academy got it triumphantly right. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is a great writer by any criterion. For 50 years, in over 30 novels, plays, memoirs and essays, he has created a fictional universe as unpredictable, exuberant and astonishing as those of Mann or Faulkner or his own South American contemporary (and rival) Gabriel García Márquez. “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” (1977) is a comic masterpiece, one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read. “The War of the End of the World” (1984) is an epic novel of Tolstoyan grandeur and sweep. His work is consistently brilliant.

A new Llosa novel, “El Sueño del Celta” (“The Celt’s Dream”), is due out in Spanish next month. In awarding the 2010 Nobel Prize to Mario Vargas Llosa, the Swedish Academy brings genuine honor to the world of letters and in so doing restores some of its own tarnished lustre.


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704696304575538182116203228.html