The Fish Can Sing, by Halldór Laxness, Vintage Reprint edition, 2008, 272 pp.

Every so often I discover a wonderful writer by some confluence of good fortune. In this case, I got my first taste of Halldór Laxness  because writer Sjón had recommended his books. And of course it was a no-brainer – Laxness had after all won the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature, and wrote prolifically – novels, short stories plays, poetry, etc. He died in 1998, he was off my radar until now, and I did not know that almost all his work had been translated into English (here’s a blog dedicated to it). But in all seriousness, how many Nobel Literature prize winners’ books have you read? (Come on, I don’t mean read about them, or seen the films or got the album, or thought you might-have-done-but-may-thinking-of-something-else…)

True, some of these works would be plainly over my head – simply too hard to digest and too foreign to grasp. However, as my mother taught me, you need a bit of fibre in your diet to stay healthy, and you should not just eat gloop and sweet stuff. The same goes for the brain. You need tough, challenging input to keep those brain cells alive and firing.

Reading the Nobel Literature Prize writers

Many years ago I made up my mind to read at least one novel in English by every Nobel Literature prize winner. As of 2017, the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to 114 individuals, the first having been awarded in 1901. Of those, 30 have been writers in English. Of them, I’ve read at least one work each by 11 of those 30 writers. I’ve also read at least one book each by 11 authors out of the total of 114 whose works have been translated into English. But still, 22 authors is only 19% of the total. Yikes. So many books to read, not enough time to read them all.

Nobel Prize in Literature winners in English – and what I’ve read

In each instance I list the author, whether I have read a book by them ✓, or not ✗, and what of theirs I have read.

  1. ✓Rudyard Kipling – The Jungle Book (well, of course)
  2. ✓William Butler Yeats – A whole lot of his poetry, some of which I can quote – The Lake Isle of Innisfree, When you are old, Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, etc.
  3. ✓George Bernard Shaw – Pygmalion
  4. ✗Sinclair Lewis
  5. ✗John Galsworthy
  6. ✗Eugene O’Neill
  7. ✓Pearl S. Buck – The Living Reed
  8. ✓T. S. Eliot – Various poems, including Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar, The Wasteland, and his collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
  9. ✗William Faulkner
  10. ✗Bertrand Russell
  11. ✗Winston Churchill
  12. ✗Ernest Hemingway – I think I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea but I can’t remember it, so that’s a no…
  13. ✓John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men,The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Sweet Thursday, The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication
  14. ✗Patrick White
  15. ✗Saul Bellow
  16. ✗William Golding
  17. ✗Wole Soyinka
  18. ✗Nadine Gordimer
  19. ✗Derek Walcott
  20. ✗Toni Morrison
  21. ✗Seamus Heaney
  22. ✗V. S. Naipaul
  23. ✓J. M. Coetzee – Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K, Disgrace
  24. ✓Harold Pinter
  25. ✓Doris Lessing – The Grass is Singing
  26. ✓Alice Munro  – Dear Life
  27. ✗Bob Dylan – Of course I’ve listened to his music but I’ve never got round to “reading” his poetry/lyrics – have you?!
  28. ✓Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day, The Buried Giant 
  29. ✓Samuel Beckett (French and English) – Waiting for Godot
  30. ✗Joseph Brodsky (Russian and English)

Nobel authors in translation – and what I’ve read

The 11 authors whose books I’ve read in translation is due the fact that they had been ably and beautifully recreated by a translator in English. Had this not been done, I would never have discovered or enjoyed them. You can see and feel even the tiniest nuance or flourish in the language that is your mother tongue. That is why a true, artistic translation is as almost as much of a feat as the original work itself – as translator Ken Liu proved with the works of Cixin LIU.

The mere fact that certain books have been translated, means that they are probably important, or will become so, that somehow the style and aesthetic, subtleties and idiosyncrasies of the original language could be transferred into the target language, and that the work is intended to be widely accessible – and vice versa.

As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote when referring to solipsism, “The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922, 5.62)

Read in translation

  1. ✓ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward
  2. ✓Günter Grass (German) – The Tin Drum
  3. ✓Thomas Mann (German) – Death in Venice
  4. ✓Imre Kertész (Hungarian) – Fateless
  5. ✓Halldór Laxness (Icelandic) – The Fish Can Sing
  6. ✓Knut hamsun (Norwegian)  – Victoria
  7. ✓Pablo Neruda (Spanish) – Most of his poetry
  8. ✓Gabriel García Márquez (Spanish) – Almost every one of his novels and novellas: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch, Love in the Time of Cholera, The General in His Labyrinth, No One Writes to the Colonel, The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Memories of My Melancholy Whores 
  9. ✓Camilo José Cela (Spanish) – The Hive
  10. ✓Mario Vargas Llosa (Spanish) – In Praise of the Stepmother
  11. ✓Tomas Tranströmer (Swedish) – Almost all his poetry, especially the collection The Half-Finished Heaven

Other awards and “must read” lists

There are other international awards, such as the Man Booker International Prize and the Hugo Award, and there are literary awards for every country, region, language, and genre, and even for translators. Many awards have been criticized for their criteria, judges, selection process, etc. A couple have been exposed as complete garbage or scams.

However, all that the Nobel Prize in Literature means to me is that it is a reliable benchmark for authority and credibility. It gives prominence to authors who really stand out, who have changed the world of literature, whose works have stood the test of time. Most of these authors have had a lifetime of success and dedication to their art. There is a world full of books, waiting to be read, and it is difficult for any author to stand out purely in terms of quality of writing, and to be placed next on your “to read” list. Awards that are reasonably reputable – such as the Nobel, Booker or the Hugo –  help in the selection process.

For these reasons, I will continue whittling way at the Nobel reading list. Thus far, the process has not been easy, but it has been most rewarding. (Next post, review of Nobel-winner Halldór Laxness’ The Fish Can Sing.)

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