The Nobel Individual – TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, 20 APRIL 2011

A writer is not famous today unless internationally famous, not recognized unless recognized everywhere. Even the recognition extended to him in his home country is significantly increased if he is recognized abroad.
This seems to be the right time and place to say a word about the accelerating internationalization of literature. Because the process affects what each of us writes, and indeed what each of us reads. And because in a small country like Holland, with a language that is not widely spoken, these developments are no doubt keenly felt.
In particular, I want to make a special effort to be honest and clear-sighted, not merely for the thrill of saying something politically incorrect, but because I feel the need to understand, for myself as much as anyone else, what we writers are doing when we project our words into the vast public space of global literature, who we are writing to, and what can be intelligently said in such a forum.
Along the way I must touch on two subjects, one under-publicized, translation, the other over-hyped, international literary prizes. From the disparity of attention given to these two questions much can be understood.
Let us remind ourselves: if you are reading Milan Kundera, in English, you are in fact reading a text put together by Michael Henry Heim. If you are reading Orhan Pamuk, in English, the words were actually consigned to the page by Maureen Freely. And when you marvel at Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, in English, the most widely sold edition of the book … well, that was me.
Why do translators become more rather than less invisible? Why is it now considered almost demeaning for a recognised writer to translate, in a way it is not demeaning if he writes criticism? I am not interested – please let’s be clear about this – in complaining, or indeed in changing things. But I want to put it to you: what is the zeitgeist behind this situation?
Conversely, why do we pay such rapt attention to the tortuously negotiated committee verdicts of a number of elderly Swedish professors choosing from hundreds if not thousands of possible candidates whose work is read for the most part in translation and often, one assumes, with only approximate knowledge of the culture their writing springs from?
Would it make any difference if they were Japanese professors?
Or American professors?
Or Zambian professors?
Or if the jury were composed along the same lines as the Security Council of the United Nations?
Or the European Commission?
We know that prizes are largely a lottery and international prizes even more so. Yet we continue to give them credit. Indeed the larger and more improbable the prize, the more credit we give. We discuss the choice in the days before. We wonder if they will give it to someone already posthumous to them-selves. A Harold Pinter. Or to somebody whom you thought already had it. A Vargas Llosa.
Or whether it will be handed out with political concerns in mind. To Dario Fo. Or Elfriede Jelinek.
We ask whether the prize will go to this or that country. As if literature were a tussle between nations. But of course it is a tussle between nations. If the prize goes to America will they dare to give it to a white Anglo-Saxon male? And so on and on. We know all this is silly, but we give it credit. A Nobel is a Nobel is a Nobel. There’s no arguing with a winner. Pamuk is more noble for his Nobel. He commands a larger fee when he gives a speech. Even if we dislike his work, we respect.
What fascinates us is that someone is being granted the ultimate international recognition. Simultaneously, the global space is declared and someone is crowned king of it. In an instant, as when the Pope canonises a saint, the chosen writer’s status is transformed, his work transfigured from contemporary to classic. And this is done with exactly the same logic, the same authority, as when the Pope and his cardinals decide who is to be the elect in God’s heaven: that is to say, with no logic or authority at all. Yet we hunger for such transforma¬tions. It is through the attention we give to them that we legitimize our own ambitions.
Conversely, the thought that a work we have read was mediated by a translator, was not the original, not the real thing, undermines the notion of the supreme achievement of this Nobel individual, and above all, the idea of his being the same, absolutely truly himself, throughout the globe. The reader wants to feel he is in direct, unmediated contact with greatness. He doesn’t want to hear about translators. The writer wants to believe his genius is arriving, pristine, to his readers all over the world. The prize is important, the translator must disappear. The translator must be reduced to the same level as the typeface or the quality of the paper. Certainly a less important factor than the cover. If a translator wins a prize it is because he translated a major author. A brilliant translation of a little known author will impress no one.
The internationalisation of literature and the progress of an exasperated individualism are in strict relation to each other. The “supreme authority of the translator,” complains Kundera in Texts Betrayed “should be the author’s personal style. But most trans¬lator’s obey another authority, that of the conventional version of ‘good French, or German or Italian.’” We are driven towards one inter¬national literature because in the imagined global arena the individual unconditioned writer meets the individual unconditioned reader. Each of us can address everybody, read everybody, on equal footing. This is a fiction more fantastical than anything J K Rowling has given us.

The speed of internationalization is astonishing. When I started writing in the late 1970s, one thought of a book as directed to a national audience. If it was well received it might find publishers in other countries. One by one. Over a period of time. Today, a first draft, a first chapter, by Jonathan Franzen can be emailed to a score of publishers worldwide. It can be translated while it is still being written then published simultaneously in as many countries, supported by an international promotional campaign, not unlike those used to launch a new electronic gadget.
And if, nevertheless, Franzen continues to write in a traditional fashion and to address himself largely to an American readership, describing in meticulous detail every aspect of American life, that is only because America is very much the object of the world’s attention. In a study I have been directing at the university in Milan, we have compared the number of articles in the cultural pages of major newspapers dedicated to Italian authors, American authors and the authors of other nations. The space given to America is quite disproportionate. The American, even more than the Englishman, the Frenchman, or the German, need not lay any special claims for international attention. The opposite is true for the writer from Serbia, from the Czech Republic, or indeed Holland. Here content must be adjusted and with content style if a global audience is to be reached. We do not all start in the same position in the literary rat race.

So what kind of literature can reach an international public, surviving what is now an industrialized process of translation that pays little attention to questions of affinity between translator and text? To answer this, it may help to remember the other great shifts in language use and target audience that brought about the literary world we grew up in. In her excellent La Republique Mondiale des Lettres, Pascal Casanova summarizes thus :
the period through the Middle Ages when writing in Europe was mostly in Latin addressed to a clerical elite, didactic and discursive in nature;
the switch during the Renaissance to the vulgate and the formation of Italian, English and French literatures, with French dominant and supposedly expressing universal literary values; the use of the vulgate brings an explosion of interest in common people and everyday life;
the romantic revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries which followed Herder in thinking of literature as an expression of the genius of a people and its language, thus freed from the dictates of the French academy; all over Europe folk tales and aural traditions are dusted off and brought into print and many national literatures emerge, chronicling contemporary life;
and finally the modern period in which individual writers resist the limitations of the national view, go into exile perhaps, deliberately undermine standard forms of discourse in their own languages, and in so doing inspire like-minded liberal elites in other countries.
Today’s international space, then, is created on the one hand through a rivalry between the growing number of nations eager to establish a literary prestige, promoting their poets and novelists internationally with the help of government institutions: literature here is understood as expressing the genius of a people – one thinks of the magical realist novels from South America, or indeed a book like Midnight’s Children – but its productions are only properly consecrated when translated worldwide, or, paradoxically in the case of Rushdie, when written in English. This literature is not, that is, addressed to the people whose genius it supposedly expresses and celebrates.
And on the other hand this international space is created by writers seeking to emerge from the strictures of a national literature into an emancipated literary space, where the text can be, ‘pure’ again, seeking to repeat, that is, the mythical careers of a Kafka or a Beckett, but with an awareness, now, of the harvest of celebrity to be reaped in terms of international recognition by doing so. Rather than embodying the spirit of a people, this is a literature that tends to the existentialist. Beckett speaks of everyman, not an Irishman; and existentialism is necessarily a form of internationalism.
Can the two tendencies be reconciled in a package that is available to a worldwide audience without insuperable problems of translation?
Let’s imagine: a writer, strongly identified with a particular country precisely because he is in conflict with its repressive authorities produces a colourful, non-realist account of life there. The daringly deviant language of early modernism, its aggressive subversion of received values, so difficult to translate, is substituted by the lingua franca of literary special effects: intellectual tropes and extravagant extended metaphors, a foregrounded literariness, oniric elements of fantasy and fable, a shift of the narrative into the threatening future or the mysterious past, all these things allow the now magically rather than realistically national to be available international¬ly. Above all, anything that would require real inside cultural knowledge to be understood, is avoided, or shifted away from the centre of the book. The spark of social recognition that animates the language of a Jane Austen or a Barbara Pym, or in Italy a Moravia or a Natalia Ginzburg, is gone.
I leave you to think of writers and novels that fit this identikit. Let’s just note that the recipe coincides with the need of the writer from the periphery to amaze if he is to draw attention to himself on the world scene. His country is presented, dare I say exploited, sold even, as a fantastical place, not represented as it might still be in an American novel.
Last year the Dalkey Press published Best European Fiction 2010 an anthology of short stories. The 35 stories are arranged in order of the country of origin, some countries getting two stories where they have two languages and two communities. There thus appears to be a scrupulous sharing out of space. Until we notice the omissions. Greece is not there. The Czech Republic is not there. Above all, Germany is not there. How can that be? And, in parenthesis, how is it that German literature seems to have so much trouble appearing on the world scene, Germany being one of the few cultures that really take books seriously?
In her introduction, Zadie Smith insists on the recognizably European flavor of the text “if the title of this book were to be removed and switched with that of an anthology of the American short story,” she tells us, “isn’t it true that only a fool would be confused as to which was truly which?”
Truly, truly, I think not. Aside from superficial markers like names and places, one feels that many of these stories could have been written in America, or indeed Asia. Whether the voice come from Latvia or Lithuania, Bosnia or Macedonia, the tone is surprisingly familiar and reassuringly similar in outlook to those of writers all over the globe.
Many of the stories are denunciations, satirical, ironical, and almost always slightly fantastical, of the writer’s country of origin. The Slovakian Peter Kristufek imagines a city given a cosmetic face-lift for an international summit, as a result of which it now ‘contained numerous phantom doors that led nowhere and false windows that could not be opened.’ Ornella Vorpsi pokes bitter fun at male attitudes in Albania, a place where a woman is encouraged to ‘sew up her slit’ when her husband is away, since Albanian men ‘have a highly developed sense of property’ ; Julian Gough indulges in surreal farce to expose Irish xenophobia and backwardness. More like foreign correspondents than foreigners, each writer appeals confidently to an international liberal readership, ourselves, at the expense of local bigotry and hypocrisy.
An editor at my Dutch publishing house tells me that if she wishes to sell the foreign rights of a Dutch novel, it must fit in with the image of Holland worldwide. There is no point for example in presenting the book as an urban novel. My Italian editor tells me that an Italian author published abroad must be condemning the country’s corruption or presenting that genial intellectuality, devoid of culture-specific elements, that we recognize in different ways in Calvino, Eco, Calasso. What the German author must do is not at all clear. A fellow Chinese writer, Xiaolu Guo, tells me that she switched to English to sell her work more easily on the international scene, but despite living in London for some years now publishers only want to buy what she writes about China. Reading her short stories, one can see at once how much would be superfluous to the Chinese reader; a great deal of the material is only there to explain things to us, the international audience.
We arrive at this paradox. However much you prize your individuality, your autonomy from your national culture, nevertheless you’d better have an interesting national product to sell on the international market: Scandinavian melancholy, Irish burlesque, the South American folk tradition. Or best of all, some downright political oppression of one variety or another.
Rather than liberating us, the process of internationalizing literature reinforces stereotypes as, faced with the need to be aware of so many countries, we use a rapid system of labelling to place them in our heads. The inevitable flattening and standardizing that occurs in translation reinforces this process.
Dare I finish with an appeal? Is it worth making appeals? No. But for the sake of wishful thinking I will anyway: I appeal to my fellow writers make an effort to become aware of these developments. Not to exploit them, but precisely to avoid writing over and over the dull, amazing novel, or the amazingly dull novel that new market conditions are inviting us to write, “the Esperanto of international literary fiction” as Adam Shatz has called it reviewing Orhan Pamuk in the London Review of Books. To do that will require our making the old and necessary gesture of stepping aside to seek autonomy, not from the national scene, in order to play to the gallery of the international scene, but from all obsession with celebrity; in short, a little autonomy from the grotesque ambitions which prompted us to create this fantastical realm of global literature in the hope of becoming, one October, its hero.