The Nobel Prize for Literature has just been awarded to the British playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter. The good news, I suppose, is that at least I knew who he was when I learned about his prize. That is a good deal more than can be said for Elfriede Jelinek, John Maxwell Coetzee, and Imre Kertész, his three predecessors as Nobel laureates in literature.
Pinter wrote several plays that have had continuing worldwide success since they were written, mostly more than 40 years ago, and several distinguished screenplays. That includes one of my all-time favorite movies, The Go-Between, which has for some mysterious reason never been released on DVD. (It is taken from a wondrous novel of the same name by L. P. Hartley, and Pinter had the good sense to use Hartley’s unsurpassable opening line: “The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.”)
But in recent years Pinter seems to have written little but anti-American screeds so ludicrous they would make Noam Chomsky wince (okay, probably not; Professor Chomsky’s anti-Americanism can only be described as pathological). And it is hard to believe that that was not a distinct plus with the Swedish Academy, which seems to have made more and more overtly political, rather than literary, choices in recent decades.
Now, I couldn’t care less what a writer’s politics are unless I’m reading him for political reasons. Gabriel García Márquez (who won the Nobel in 1982) is way over the horizon to my left, but his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the great works of the twentieth century, and it is far from the only great book he ever wrote.
Let me offer the Swedish Academy some free advice: Lay off the politics already! With a very few exceptions—such as George Orwell, who never won a Nobel—explicit politics and enduring writing don’t mix. Agitprop is not literature. Great politicians are seldom great professional writers, although there are exceptions such as Theodore Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill (the only writer of nonfiction to win a Nobel, in 1952). And certainly great writers are hardly ever great politicians. Benjamin Disraeli wrote several successful novels in his youth, but they are read today only by serious students of early Victorian literature.
Perhaps the Academy should try something totally out of the box next year.
To that end I nominate Stephen Sondheim for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Over a 50-year career he has plumbed the depths of the human soul with words that range from the witty (“Is he saintly/Even faintly?/No./ But who needs Albert Schweitzer/When the lights are low?”) to the wise (“Advancing art is easy./Financing it is not.”) to the achingly sad (“I dim the lights/And think about you,/Spend sleepless nights/To think about you./You said you loved me,/Or were you just being kind?/Or am I losing my mind?”) to the exuberant (“I like the shores of America!/ Comfort is yours in America!/Knobs on the doors in America!/Wall-to-wall floors in America!”) to the redeeming (“Hard to see the light now/Just don’t let it go./Things will come out right now/We can make it so./Someone is on your side/No one is alone.”)
He can even toss off a literary allusion in a song about women with too much money and not enough self-awareness:
Here’s to the girls who stay smart—
Aren’t they a gas?
Rushing to their classes in optical art,
Wishing it would pass.
Another long exhausting day,
Another thousand dollars,
A matinée, a Pinter play,
Perhaps a piece of Mahler’s—
I’ll drink to that.
And one for Mahler.
And, despite being familiar with the overwhelming majority of what Stephen Sondheim has written, I don’t know what his politics might be, or even if he has any. I do know that 300 years from now, people will still be listening to him in wonder, for his art, while inescapably of the twentieth century, is really without time or place. It speaks to us all and always will.
Can the same be said for Elfriede Jelinek, John Maxwell Coetzee, and Imre Kertész?