by Stephen Schwartz
The ignobility of the Nobel Prizes awarded this year by the Swedish and Norwegian Academies, the first for literature and the second for peace, maintains the pattern of recent years. Bereft of inspiration or awareness, they are reduced to honoring nearly-forgotten writers, and do-gooders with questionable records of achievement. In addition, as often as can be managed, they favor individuals with an anti-American, anti-Western agenda.
Last year's Nobel in literature went to Doris Lessing, whose Golden Notebook, describing the 1950s and widely read a decade afterward, was a moving account of the tragic effects of Stalinism among British intellectuals. But it was also the high point of her career. The need of the Swedes to reward a writer long past her prime spoke to a lack, in Stockholm's view, of suitable candidates among authors whose efforts were more recent in distinction. The Nobel Prize in literature, like its later recipients, is also long past its prime; it now celebrates nostalgia for the lost world of the literary left, rather than any attainments of the present.
The 2008 literary laureate is J.M.G. Le Clézio, a French author who, like Lessing, produced his last works of substance in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he was one of the French "new novelists." After prose experimentation ran out of steam among Gallic readers, he turned to a more predictable mannerism, which broadened his audience but did not deepen his significance. In 1980, his book Désert (The Desert) gained him an award from the Académie Française named for Paul Morand, the epitome of safe, mediocre French literary output. While his earlier, innovative works, like The Interrogation (1963), The Book of Flights (1969), War (1970), and The Giants (1973) were done into English--the last three by the gifted translator and general provocateur Simon Watson Taylor--Désert was not.
The transformation of Le Clézio from literary nonconformist to pillar of the French Academy may be taken as symbolic of the broader deadening of French nerve as the rebels of the 1960s became the comfortable bien-pensants of 21st century official culture. Predictably, the work of Le Clézio, who was born on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius and has traveled extensively in Mexico and other tropical countries, pays homage to multiculturalism. Désert has been praised by the academicians for its evocation of the Berber (Blue Men) culture of ancient North Africa, its images of French imperialism, and its portrayal of the demoralized arrival of immigrants in contemporary France.
This work represents an elegant reduction of Latin American "magical realism" for the French public and finally, the embalming of high literary modernism in post-modernist political correctness. In its pages we find another lost world, that of the Sahara; and the desert it summons up could be a trope for the presumptive void of present-day creativity. Le Clézio partakes of the pathos visible on every modern university campus. Where once a Duchamp or Breton, a Borges or Paz, a Joyce or Beckett dared new forms of expression, millions of their tenured imitators simply repeat enervating clichés. Le Clézio comes to us now as a decorative, French simulacrum resembling the mendacious myths of Edward Said. With such works, the French left, today ensconced in the positions it once derided, may easily ignore its moral nullity.
The bestowal of the literary Nobel on Le Clézio may be innocuous, particularly when compared with the truly ignominious past tributes paid by the Swedes to the deranged anti-American Harold Pinter (2005), the Austrian porno queen Elfriede Jelinek (2004), the Nazi apologist Gunter Grass (1999), the unrepentant Stalinist and former political censor José Saramago (1998), the imbecilic clown Dario Fo (1997), and our own American queen of race hysteria, Toni Morrison (1993). One could argue that the distinction granted this year by the Norwegians to the Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, given the Peace Prize for his imposition of an unjust constitution on suffering Kosovo, was equally harmless.
Ahtisaari's accolade follows the Nobel commendations for peace granted to Al Gore last year; the feckless Mohamad El-Baradei (2005), who just cannot seem to decide if there is something wrong with Iran's nuclear program; America's other Southern-born national embarrassment, Jimmy Carter (2002); Kofi Annan (2001), appointed to the United Nations secretariat when his country, Ghana, was under a military dictator; Yasser Arafat (1994); his fellow-partisan of guerrilla war, Rigoberta Menchú (1992); and, lest we forget, Vietnamese Communist Le Duc Tho (1973).
But unlike the rest of these characters, Ahtisaari has unfinished business, and it is bad, and the granting of the Nobel Peace Prize to him was clearly intended to keep his dangerous deeds in force. The Ahtisaari constitution for independent Kosovo was imposed this year on the people of that threatened territory, but his "peace plan" promises more violence, rather than tranquility. Specifically, the Ahtisaari scheme calls for the continuation of U.N. and European Union authority in Kosovo, and the partition of the young republic through expanded Serbian enclaves.
The new EU satrap in Kosovo, Dutch diplomat Peter Feith, gleefully told the world press that the Nobel for Ahtisaari "sends a clear signal that his proposal is the best one for reconciliation" in Kosovo. Unfortunately, clearer signals came, simultaneous with the Nobel from Norway, after its Slav-majority neighbors, Montenegro and Macedonia, recognized the Kosovo Republic last week. On Monday, October 13, violence by self-identified Serb loyalists rocked Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, leaving 23 local policemen and 11 civilians injured, in a pattern echoing that of Russian-organized disruption leading to the invasion of Georgia two months ago. The future of the Balkans may be seen in flares set in the riots by Serb extremists, rather than the glint of the gold medal presented to Matti Ahtisaari. And so, in the annals of Nobel humanism, all is vanity, all is hypocrisy, all is empty. Truly, the literature and politics of a desert.