Tuesday, October 22, 2019
Olga Tokarczuk, Envy and Pride
Danusha, you asked for my opinion re this “affair.” To me, the yipping among some on the right is just that—yipping, to be ignored as one ignores ill-bred web louts.
But, since you asked me to share my thoughts, I spent some time pondering the curious case of Olga Tokarczuk. Here they are:
1. I seldom pay attention to the goings-on of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, but millions of people do. The Nobel Prize is *the* prize, the one most writers would kill for. (Doris Lessing, link below, was underwhelmed, but she is an exception.) Now, when anyone wins an important award, web louts go crazy with envy. Go to any movie discussion board after an actress wins an Oscar and you’ll find louts making mean-spirited comments about her clothes, jewels, and manners.
Envy, you see.
And that, I think, in large part explains the reaction among many to the news of Tokarczuk’s winning the Nobel. Accompanying the envy like an evil twin is the desire to tear the person down, to engage in vicious ad hominem attacks, to post character assassinations. Sane people—and these do not usually worry about the Nobel Prize—would just think, “Good job, mate,” and then get on with their lives, but we are talking about web louts.
2. The people this award pissed off most are chauvinist politicians, most of whom wouldn’t know a sonnet from a door knob. This sounds harsh and elitist and just like Clinton and just like Soros, but it’s true. Do you think Octavio Cortes knows Balzac from Beyoncé? That Rick Perry knows Kafka from Kardashian? That the Polish politicians who have taken to Twitter to denounce their countrywoman’s achievement know Dorothy Parker from Dolly Parton? Some have even boasted proudly that they never read her books. Oh, that will show her! Of course, said politicians would have trouble with her books, as they consist of sentences made up of multiple clauses, but enough about that. For these people and their ilk, a novel is worthy or unworthy not because of what it says, or fails to say, about the human condition, but because of what it says, or fails to say, about their own race or country. It’s literary chauvinism and it is vile.
3. There’s nothing uniquely Polish about any of this. Israel’s most prominent novelists are overwhelmingly leftist, and they too write about flaws in Israeli society. No biggie, right? Well, to some it is a biggie. When David Grossman, one of Israel’s most admired writers, won the Man Booker prize a couple of years ago, louts also took to Twitter and Facebook to denounce him. His crime was writing books that a) criticize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and b) depict life in Israel with the eye of a novelist, rather than that of a two-bit politician or flag-waving chauvinist. For this, some do not like him, though I should add that he was never treated to anything even remotely approaching the furor over Tokarczuk’s winning of the Nobel Prize, I think all this has something to do with the inferiority complex some countries have towards the outside world, the terrible fear that a foreigner might read something in a novel and think, “Are all Poles/ Israelis/Chileans/choose nationality like this?”
4. The most important question we can ask about a novel is this: does it tell us something new about the human experience, about our time here on earth? I read Tokarczuk’s “Flights” in English translation several months ago, and, in my opinion, the answer is yes and hell yes. I do not know if that novel is representational of her work, but I was so impressed that I ordered another of her books. What’s in those pages is far, far more important than comments she made about Polish-Jewish relations or about serfs in Poland. She earned that prize, she deserved that prize, and she should be proud of herself, the haters be damned!
thanks to Liron Rubin for the above comment