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Media Clippings: Literary Genius?

January 5, 2006 By:
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I have written several times that the Nobel Prizes, especially those for literature, have been given primarily for the politics of the writers rather than for any intrinsic quality of the work. And each time I've said this, I've been denounced by a number of readers.

But it seems clear to me, especially if you look at the recent writers chosen - Portugal's José Saramago, for instance, or, even more to the point, Italy's Dario Fo or Austria's Elfriede Jellinek - whose works have minimal worth, but whose politics are impeccably left-wing.

Saramago, for example, visited Israel for the first time, and said that what the Israelis were doing on the West Bank and in Gaza was a crime as immense as Auschwitz - and he was praised by many in the international community for the observation.

The only recent cases in which politics played a part but literary quality was indisputable have been Czeslow Milosz and Nadine Gordimer. They are truly two of the greatest writers of our time, and directly in line with the masters of the 19th century. But you can say that about few other recent laureates.

I think my point was only reinforced by a news item that appeared in The New York Times on Dec. 8; it amounted to a near straight transcription of Harold Pinter's Nobel acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy, delivered via video from London, due to the playwright's grave medical condition.

Here, the philosophy and worldview of so many of the laureates were mapped out in stunning, almost naked, detail. I imagine that none of the writers I've mentioned would be averse to anything Pinter had to say. In fact, they'd most likely have applauded him.

Times' reporter Sarah Lyall noted that the contentious playwright - who is Jewish but never stresses that fact - turned his speech "into a furious howl of outrage against American foreign policy, saying that the United States had not only lied to justify waging war against Iraq but had also 'supported and in many cases engendered every right-wing military dictatorship' in the last 50 years."

Whether or not any of this is true seemed to be beside the point for Pinter. Lyall reported that he sat in a wheelchair, a blanket covering his lap, and that he spoke in a hoarse but unwavering voice. Several years ago, doctors told him he had esophageal cancer, and insisted that he could not make the trip to Stockholm.

But that didn't stop his diatribe: "The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis."

I saw nothing in the press criticizing Pinter. Even more egregious was that no one took time to ask what any of this had to do with literature, the theater, or thanking the Swedes for their generous prize, which comes in at a little more than a cool million.

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