Dhe Swedish Academy – much admired and much scolded – could easily have done everything right this year when awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature: morally, politically. She could have simply given the prize to an opposition writer from the former Soviet sphere of influence, thereby taking a stand against the Russian war in Ukraine. We all know the names of those authors, Ukrainian, but also Russian or Belarusian, who would have been suitable (Andrukhovych, Ulitzkaja, Petrovskaya, Sorokin), although one has to give the Academy credit for being the most relentless literary reappraiser of the Soviet legacy, the Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich, already honored: 2015, the year after the beginning of the Russian attacks in the Donbass, the beginning of the war that the West denied for so long. Nobody says that the Nobel Prize jury had no sense.
Or Salman Rushdie. The details of the Stockholm prize-giving are one of the mysteries of this most important of literary awards, but the assassination of the writer with an Iranian fatwa took place on August 12 of this year, almost two months ago. Don’t let anyone say that you couldn’t have decided in favor of him – especially since the aesthetic greatness of Rushdie’s work is beyond question. But the Academy has not had the courage to give him the award (and thereby encourage persecuted writers around the world) for thirty years. Why should she have done it this time?
Because one had hoped for the replacements in the jury after the scandals of the past decade. And after all, the last two Nobel Prizes were both surprising and literarily consistent decisions: 2020 for the American poet Louise Glück and 2021 for the Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah. Nothing had been leaked out beforehand about these decisions (as was quite usual before), and if there was anything to fault it it was the consecutive awarding of two English-writing authors. The Nobel Prize for Literature has global aspirations, and no matter how much English has come to dominate global literature, there are still plenty of great writers expressing themselves in other languages.
A woman who represents the cause of women
One of them is the French Annie Errnaux. She is the winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature. Not a political decision, but not a purely literary one either. Because the eighty-two-year-old Annie Ernaux is a decidedly moral author who, in her books, which are always based on autobiography, has advocated just as vehemently for the socially disadvantaged as for women’s emancipation. From that point of view it is also a correct choice, if not from the expected moral point of view. And the fact that the decision was made in this way is definitely another sign: for the immunity of the Swedish Academy, and for the fact that it should not be seen as an announcement body à la PEN, which sees itself as representing the interests of writers and thus representing their interests in must be in the foreground. Although the Nobel Prize in Literature is for a person, it is an award that is given on behalf of the public. At least one that the academy would like: open-minded and tradition-conscious at the same time, but above all literary demanding.
In that regard, Annie Ernaux is more than a good one, it’s an excellent choice. The fact that they are also (not only in this country) known much better than Glück and Gurnah will not only please the book trade (but especially them, and of course their German publisher Suhrkamp). As a reader, or at least as an interested observer, you get a better feeling if you have heard the name of the Nobel Prize winner for literature before. And Ernaux will really have read a lot of people. That, in turn, does not have to interest the Nobel Prize jury at all. But with an award that achieves so much, and consequently so much scrutiny and analysis, variety is the only salvation in the inevitable escape from expectation. Variety in languages, forms and also prominence. And now clearly recognizable in terms of gender. From that point of view, too, Annie Ernaux is a logical choice. Especially since she writes for her gender like hardly anyone else.