NWR Issue 29

Writers and the Nobel Prize

Sections of the London media have reacted with characteristic shortsightedness to the suggestion put forward in the last issue of the New Welsh Review that R.S. Thomas is worthy of nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In the clichéd tones which have become the hallmark of much of their treatment of Wales and Welsh issues in recent years, they suggest that R.S.'s observations on the Welsh condition somehow render him ineligible as a Nobel candidate because they have been controversial.

The reason why some authors receive the supreme occolade of the Nobel Literature Prize and others do not will always be a matter for debate. But the one thing which is common to almost all winners is that, at some stage, their writings and utterances have been "controversial"

Those who doubt this need look no further than 1994 Nobel Prize winner, Kenzaburo Oe. He came to prominence by adopting a rough prose style which violated the natural rhythms of the Japanese language, epitomising the rebellion of the younger generation in post world-war two Japan. After early success which initially made him the darling of the Japanese literati, he became deeply involved in the politics of the New Left, and his subsequent work was fiercely criticised by right-wing organisations in Japan. His later writings have been no less controversial, reflecting his growing concern over power politics in a nuclear age and with questions involving the Third World.

But Oe is only the most recent in a long line of controversial Prize-winners. The 1991 award went to the South African writer Nadine Gordimer for her "continual involvement on behalf of literature and free speech under the censorship and persecution of a police state," as well as for her outstanding literary style and magnificent epic writing. The 1988 award went to the Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, one of whose early works drew a parallel between the Hyksos invasion of ancient Egypt and the British occupation of modem Egypt and whose novels remained unavailable in many Middle Eastern countries because of his support for President Sadat's Camp David Peace Accord with Israel.

The controversy stirred by other award winners has been such that they have felt obliged to go - or been driven - into exile. They include the Mexican poet, Octavio Paz (1990 winner) who now lives in Britain, Wole Soyinka (1986) who recently had to smuggle himself out of Nigeria, and, perhaps most famously, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1970). Following publication of The Gulag Archipeligo, in 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and expelled from the country for an exile which lasted until after the collapse of communism. The work of another Russian writer, Boris Pasternak, caused such a political storm that he took the unprecedented step of refusing the 1958 Prize. This was for his epic novel, Dr Zhivago. Threatened with exile if he accepted, he pleaded it would be, for him, the equivalent of death.

Such pressures may not have been felt by those Nobel-winning writers of the Anglo-American world with whom we are more often familiar - Rudyard Kipling (1907), W.B. Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925), T.S. Eliot (1948), William Faulkner (1949), Bertrand Russell (1950), Sir Winston Churchill (1953), Ernest Hemingway (1954), John Steinbeck (1962), Samuel Beckett (1969). But all at some stage in their lives disturbed conventional views in the world of literature and beyond. Nobody now suggests their awards were undeserved, because they did so.

It is true some deserving writers never received the Prize - Graham Greene is someone who comes immediately to mind. Awards to some others clearly reflected the emotion of the period: their writings have not stood the test of time - a measure of literature's value and importance.

But it is because we are confident R.S. Thomas's poetic achievement of the past 50 years bears comparison with that of many leading literary figures of the 20th century that we are urging his name be put forward for consideration. And if those metropolitan commentators who see fit to pronounce on literary matters were only do a little homework on R.S.'s poetry and on the record of past Nobel Prize-winners before rushing into print they might find that they agreed.


previous editorial: English in Wales
next editorial: A Nobel for Ronald Stuart


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