I’m rather behind on my reading. This month’s column was supposed to be about Snow by Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Prize-winning author from Turkey. However, I’m only a few chapters in, and not yet ready to have an opinion. An exiled poet returns to a Turkish city named Kars to write about a wave of suicides among religious teenage girls, but he also nurses the hope of reuniting with a past love. Set against a backdrop of Turkey’s battle between secularism and Islamic fundamentalism, the book is proving to be both fascinating and difficult – and sadly, despite being written in 2002, still relevant.
This is my first book by Pamuk, and it got me thinking about Nobel laureates in literature. With the 2016 award going to American singer/songwriter Bob Dylan last month, the yearly arguments on what makes a writer deserving of a Nobel have resurfaced yet again.
Some awardees, in retrospect, seem to not have stood the test of time. Meanwhile, there are some egregious oversights (in my humble opinion): Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur Miller, Virginia Woolf, and Leo Tolstoy, for instance. Other greats have not qualified for the award due to their deaths before it was awarded, such as Italo Calvino and Franz Kafka.
And then there is the undeniable Eurocentricism of the award, and though the Swedish Academy has attempted to be more inclusive in recent decades, the list of past winners still feels more reflective of a European literary sensibility than a global one. The list is also very much skewed male, with only 14 laureates being women since the award’s inception in 1901; among them, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, and Nadine Gordimer.
These reasons are partly responsible for why so few Nobel winners have ended up on my list of beloved writers. But the ones that have, well, they are indeed special to me.
Rudyard Kipling (1907 laureate) – I practically grew up with Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Just So Stories, and I’m continually amazed by the fresh pleasures I discover in them even today. Fable-like yet rich with detail, simple yet metaphorical, I love that his writing can be complex and yet so accessible.
Rabindranath Tagore (1913 laureate) – Tagore’s poetry, for me, are almost beyond description. They narrate my emotions, as if he knew them intimately. They elevate my joy, giving it shape and form. They give me breath on days when I feel strangled. And they paint the world into being. One of my favourites:
Little Flute (from Gitanjali)
Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail
vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales,
and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in
joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.
William Butler Yeats (1923 laureate) – Yeats was one of the first English poets I remember reading as a child, and I’ve loved him ever since. I first fell for his beautiful imagery, and as I grew older, became more appreciative of the many layers of meaning and the mastery of rhythm in his writing. This one almost stops my heart every time:
He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
William Golding (1983 laureate) – There are many novels by Golding that I love – The Inheritors, The Scorpion God, the To The Ends Of The Earth trilogy – but by far my most favourite is the book he’s become almost synonymous with, The Lord Of The Flies. Golding writes with a light touch that belies the ferocity of his narrative, and creates scenarios that seem both strange and intensely familiar at the same time. Equal parts fascinating and terrifying, the book is timeless because it gets at the truth of the human condition.
Jose Saramago (1998 laureate) – Saramago is one of those writers that make me wonder about the supposed lines that separate speculative and literary fiction; after all, books like Blindness, The Year Of The Death Of Ricardo Reis, and Death With Interruptions display storylines that would fit just as well under the speculative fiction genre. I love how he uses the fantastic to comment on the personal and the political, almost like a parable. He isn’t always an easy writer to read – he writes long, complex sentences and seems to avoid using full stops as much as possible – but persevere and there are some weird, wonderful stories to be had.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.