Two Nobel Prize Winners
by Kathy Borst, October 27, 2010
(I don't know where the AVA gets all those great quotes, but a couple in here made me think of them, though perhaps you've seen and used them already.)
It was on this day in 1964 that Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, which he turned down. A week earlier, Sartre had written a letter to the Nobel Committee asking to be removed from the list of nominees, and politely explaining that he would not accept the prize if it was offered to him. But no one managed to read his letter in time, and the Swedish Academy officially announced their choice, much to the embarrassment of everyone.
Sartre wrote a public letter explaining his decision, pointing out that if anyone had noticed, he had turned down every official honor offered to him during the course of his career. And he said: 'This attitude is based on my conception of the writer's enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own--that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner. The writer who accepts an honor of this kind involves as well as himself the association or institution which has honored him. My sympathies for the Venezuelan revolutionists commit only myself, while if Jean-Paul Sartre, the Nobel laureate, champions the Venezuelan resistance, he also commits the entire Nobel Prize as an institution. The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case.'
It's the 91st birthday of another unenthusiastic Nobel winner, the novelist Doris Lessing. (This author was born Doris May Tayler in 1919, Kermansha, Persia, which is now Bakhtaran, Iran.) Her father had lost a leg during World War I, and throughout her childhood he talked incessantly about the war. She said, 'I was a terribly damaged child, terribly neurotic, over-sensitive, over-suffering.' Her family lived in Tehran for a couple of years, then traveled through the new Soviet Union, then back to England briefly. There, her father attended the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 and went to the Rhodesian booth, and he was enchanted with the promises that you could get quick rich off farming there. So even though he knew nothing about farming, he took his whole family off to Southern Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe, to farm. She went to school for awhile, but when she was 14 she was sitting in the classroom and she realized how terrible her school was, so she stood up and left, and never went back. She worked on the farm and taught herself. She said, 'I read, and when I was interested in something, I followed it up. Whenever I met anyone who knew anything, I would bore them stiff until they told me what they knew. I still have these terrible gaps; things that every child learned at age 14 I have to look up in an encyclopedia. I would really like to have learned languages and mathematics--that would be useful now. But I'm glad that I was not educated in literature and history and philosophy, which means that I did not have this Eurocentered thing driven into me, which I think is the single biggest hang-up Europe has got. It's almost impossible for anyone in the West not to see the West as the God-given gift to the world.'
She moved back to England eventually, and her first novel was The Grass is Singing (1950), about the terrible dynamics of racism in Rhodesia, and the erosion of the British Empire there. She has published many novels and collections of short stories, including The Golden Notebook (1962), The Four Gated City (1969), Shikasta (1979), The Good Terrorist (1985), and The Cleft (2007), and she has been equally comfortable writing realism, science or speculative fiction, as well as plays, poetry, memoirs, and even a couple of operas.
In 2007 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was out grocery shopping when the announcement came, and she came home to find her house swamped with reporters. She was nonplussed about the prize, saying, 'Oh Christ! I couldn't care less. This has been going on for 30 years. I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all. It's a royal flush.' And she said, 'I can't say I'm overwhelmed with surprise. I'm 88 years old and they can't give the Nobel to someone who's dead, so I think they were probably thinking they'd probably better give it to me now before I've popped off.'
By the time she accepted the prize, she was considerably more gracious, saying, 'Thank you does not seem enough when you've won the best of them all. It is astonishing and amazing.' But later that year she was feeling bitter again, saying that winning the Nobel meant that she no longer had enough time to write. She said, 'All I do is give interviews and spend time being photographed.'
She said, 'Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself.'