The Nobel Reprise, Letter 6: Selma Lagerlöf
To date, our project has been raining men. You have written three letters, and I’ve written two, and all the authors we’ve dealt with have been male: Kertesz, Beckett, Le Clézio, Pirandello, Faulkner. I was all ready to do either Mann or Bellow, but then I had a pang of… well, I’m not sure what, exactly. I wouldn’t say that it was guilt. I wouldn’t say that it was political correctness. It was maybe a slight exhaustion with male writers, and how they have addressed topics of national identity, personal power, and the way that even our fundamental reality bends to certain hegemonic concerns. I wanted to branch out, but not like an academic determined to occupy the bare spots on a map to increase my chance of publication. I wanted to branch out like a stupid tree, thoughtlessly, to naturally extend myself into some other space. In short, I wanted to write about a woman. But Jessica Alba hasn’t won the Nobel for Literature. Yet. So what was I to do?
I have started with a jokey tone because I’m about to discuss a joke. It’s your joke, or rather, a joke that Julian Barnes made that you repeated. In your most recent letter, your Faulkner letter, you raise the problem of the last reader. I’ll summarize: Barnes says that at some point in the unknowable but foreseeable future, every writer will have a last reader. Every writer will fall out of fashion and out of favor and be read by fewer and fewer people until, finally, there is only one reader left for that writer. That one reader will be unimpressed and refuse to pass the book along to his friend, or his wife, or his son. And in that refusal, that reader will kill the writer, again.
You point out that Nobelists evade this problem, that in fact that may be one of the central qualities of a Nobelist, that they have last readers. Nobelists, by definition, are perpetuated by reputation, by institution, by the cultural inertia. It’s hard to imagine getting to the point where no one picks up Faulkner. But then, in your very next paragraph, you seem to reconsider this point a bit. You say, “I mean, we’re going to have to work a little harder to find books by Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf or Count Maurice Polidore Marie Bernhard Maeterlinck or Bjørnstjerne Martinus Bjørnson -- but we’ll find them.” I stopped at this sentence of yours and stared at the names. Mainly I was staring at the first name, because I had never seen it before. It seemed to me like maybe Selma Lagerlöf might have already found her final reader. I have never read Lagerlöf. I don’t know anyone else who has. I have never heard anyone at a party ask anyone “Have you read Lagerlöf” or say “When I was reading Lagerlöf last night.”
And yet, Lagerlöf has a number of interesting qualifications, which I learned when I went to look her up at the Nobel Prize website. When she won the prize in 1909, she was the first woman to win the Nobel and also the first Swede. In her picture she looks a little stern and matronly, like she might bake cookies and then refuse to let you eat one. But she didn’t win the price for being stern. She was awarded the Nobel “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings.” This seems like a kind of code, and it is: Lagerlöf is known primarily for a children’s book called The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. Because your last letter ended with a mention of your twins, who are dominating every moment of your life, this seemed fortuitous as well. So I went to read this children’s book by this historically significant Swedish woman who I had not, until a few moments earlier, heard of at all.
The book is superb. It’s very strange. At the beginning, the boy of the title, Nils Holgersson, comes upon an elf and doesn’t treat it with kindness. That seems reasonable to me. As a result he is transformed:
The boy ran around the glass several times, to see if there wasn't a little man hidden behind it, but he found no one there, and then he began to shake with terror. For now he understood that the elf had bewitched him, and that the creature whose image he saw in the glass was -- himself.
After he becomes an elf, Nils is taken for a ride by a goose, who flies over the whole of Sweden. At that point, the book becomes a strange and entirely satisfying hybrid between a nature book, a travelogue, a collection of local folklore, and a bildungsroman. Nils must learn all about his native land at the same time that he struggles to become human again. It’s trippy, to say the least, but it got me thinking more about place than anything else. In one of our earlier letters, I confessed that I tend to end up with writers like Beckett and Pirandello because I feel a shortage of inspiration when it comes to writing about places, and a surge of inspiration when it comes to writing about thoughts and emotions and psychological architecture. You addressed that in your Faulkner letter when you mentioned that Faulkner does some of the best landscape writing you have ever encountered. Here, with Selma Lagerlöf, we have yet another variation: a writer who is nearly perfect on landscape, but is confined in her ambit so that the landscape on which she is nearly perfect has little or nothing to do with my life. I suppose it’s possible that Faulkner has the same effect on non-Americans. But that makes me think that perhaps your earlier point about last readers should be revised. Authors don’t have last readers when they write diligently about places where people are, and will continue to be, because people like to see themselves and the place where they live reflected back, even in elfin miniature. (This is why, incidentally, I prefer to stay in the world of thoughts and emotions and psychological architecture, because I think that everyone lives there.) This, weirdly, is also why I find the notion of the Nobel a little suspect, because it suggests that it’s rewarding an author who is significant to the world, when in fact it is only ever rewarding an author who is significant to a portion of the world.
This takes me back to the beginning. “A portion of the world”: I could mean a region, or an age group, or a gender. Whereas most of the writers we have read are accepted as high literature, Lagerlöf is sometimes categorized, with what I think is condescension, as a “storyteller.” That word is never far from her name. Again, this seems like a kind of code: it seems to suggest that she’s not as sophisticated or as serious as Beckett or Faulkner or Mann or any of the male writers. I don’t think this is necessarily misogyny. I think it has more to do with the kind of books she wrote, and the kind of books she didn’t write. Those critics who defend her tend to point away from The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, toward her other works -- the anti-war novel The Outcast, for example -- but that just seems like another form of condescension. Why can’t Lagerlöf’s children’s book be valued just as highly as Absalom, Absalom or Waiting for Godot? This isn’t a rhetorical question. I don’t know the answer. I’m just asking.
A few weeks ago I read at the Miami Book Fair with Lev Grossman, a contemporary novelist whose most recent book, The Magicians, builds on the work of fantasy writers like C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. Lev made some remarks before he read, and one of them stayed with me. He asked (again, not rhetorically, I don’t think) why the wonderment of early reading can’t stay with us into adulthood? Why can’t the books we come across at thirty, or forty, or fifty, affect us in quite the same way as the book about the children who were turned into flying mice that we read when we were eight? I don’t quite know the answer, but I have been thinking about it since Miami. Some of it has to do with subject matter, obviously: as children we are both powerless (on account of being little) and omnipotent (on account of not knowing yet how limited the world will eventually become), and anything that touches both of these terminals will establish a powerful circuit. Some of it has to do with the competition: as adults we retreat into our corners and the prospect of a universally compelling story becomes faintly threatening. There are other reasons, but I haven’t brought them into focus yet. So I guess I’ll exit this letter by asking you some questions. To you, does the Nobel Prize necessarily suggest high literature? How do you grapple with the difference between reading for pleasure and reading for self-improvement or enlightenment? And, as a writer, how do you locate yourself (or avoid being located) in a specific place or genre?
Beware of Elves and Geese,