A Tale of Two Laureates

Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee and the Swedish Press

In: Journal of World Literature
Stefan Helgesson Stockholm University Stockholm Sweden

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Focusing on the reception of the two Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee, this article investigates the literature prize as a national, and indeed Stockholm-based, phenomenon in Sweden. It makes two general claims. The first is that the press exercises a co-consecrating authority that both rivals and depends on the authority of the Swedish Academy. This becomes evident not least in occasional attempts by critics to deconsecrate a laureate. The second claim is that the dramaturgy of the literature prize, beginning with the announcement in October and ending with the award ceremony in December, culminates shortly before the ceremony with the Nobel lecture, when the laureate is heard in their own voice. In an analysis of Gordimer’s and Coetzee’s lectures, the article concludes that they present sharply different attempts at performatively resolving the tension between literary autonomy and heteronomy.

In the Swedish press, the annual October announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature causes a flurry of activity. Beginning with pre-announcement speculations and ending with the prize ceremony on 10 December, it is a media event with its own dramatic arc. After the brief explosion of coverage following the announcement, public interest in the laureate is maintained in various ways – including the publication of the Nobel lecture in Swedish translation. Then, by mid-December, the laureate drops more or less out of sight. In recent years, this dramaturgy has been streamlined and branded by the Nobel Foundation (all Nobel announcements now happen the same week), but it has also been diluted by the transformations in the media ecology as well as, possibly, the diminished glamour of the literature prize following the upheavals in the Swedish Academy in 2018 (Helgesson and Thomsen 158–159). But back in 1991 and 2003, the years when Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee were awarded the prize, the glamour was untarnished and the event-making machinery was in full swing – with the daily press enjoying a privileged role as a “co-consecrator” in rivalry (but also symbiosis) with the Swedish Academy itself.

My interest in this article, then, concerns the paradoxical nature of this globally resonant prize as a national, and indeed Stockholm-based, phenomenon in Sweden. As I explain below, the juxtaposition of Gordimer’s and Coetzee’s prizes provides also an angle on how this national public sphere has negotiated outward literary and political orientations. The co-consecrating authority of the press relies, after all, on a combination of “autonomous” and “heteronomous” appreciations of the laureates, to use a Bourdieu-inspired vocabulary. The risk of unduly privileging the latter, political dimension, needs to be weighed against the risk of ignoring it, and hence alienating a broader readership from the prize. In this respect, the role of the press differs from the Swedish Academy’s: while the Academy can afford to be unpredictable and supposedly “non-political” in its choices, one task of the press could be to enable a political critique not just of a laureate’s work, but of the prize itself. Critics with different axes to grind in the Swedish literary field will also use the prize as an occasion to promote their own values. In addition, laureates themselves approach the literature/politics equation differently: if Gordimer can be said to have accepted the assumed dichotomy at face value, Coetzee tended instead to recode it in terms that were more in accordance with the creative license afforded by social domain of literature. This, I argue, helps to explain the mixed reception of Gordimer, which ranged from enthusiasm to deprecation. With Coetzee, there was more of a consensus.

The asymmetry of the relation between the Academy and the press should be obvious, given the secrecy surrounding the Academy’s nominations and long-term preparations leading to the drama of the “surprise.” Interestingly, until 1976 the two newspapers in focus here – Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet – had a special deal with the Academy. Under oaths of secrecy, editors were informed in advance of the likely winner, allowing them to prepare their coverage in good time (Leonardz). Since then, however, presumably no one outside of the Academy knows anything until the announcement. (Although leaks have happened.) This means that the press first has to engage in guesswork, and then in reactions to a given fact. The Academy and the press operate therefore in discrete rhythms – one slow and deliberate, the other rapid, often rushed. On the other hand, the press has the freedom to involve a broader range of voices and registers in the assessment of the laureates, even to the extent of attempting a deconsecration of a laureate who fails to inspire consensus. Above all, and this is where the symbiotic nature of the relationship becomes evident, the Academy and the Nobel Foundation are also entirely dependent on the media. What would remain of the prize if no one reported it?

My national approach to the prize in this article means engaging with a brand of Swedish provincialism that tends to be acutely aware of its provincial nature. In Swedish public culture it is taken for granted that Sweden is a “small country.” Hence, whenever Swedish cultural producers are successful internationally – be it ABBA, the film director Ruben Östlund or designers of computer games – these signs of external acceptance are eagerly reported in national media. With the Nobel prizes, the situation is similar, only reversed. Now it is Sweden that is the consecrator, and international interest in the country is motivated not by the achievements of Swedish nationals, but by the prizes themselves as authoritative, globally recognised benchmarks in the “economy of prestige” (English). As James English makes clear (28–29), the Nobel prizes inaugurated this transnational economy in the twentieth century, endowing them also with a temporal capital that literally cannot be bought for money. In a small country, such an unusual state of affairs will nurture a degree of national narcissism. The Nobel prizes are held up as a mirror to the Swedish public, assuring them that they indeed belong to a contemporary, cosmopolitan community of knowledge and culture, and are not just inhabitants in some remote backwater in the extreme North.

If the excavation of press material below demonstrates this provincial cosmopolitanism in action, my choice of writers provides an added twist to the story. At the time of their awards, both Gordimer and Coetzee were in Sweden seen as strongly tied to their South African origin, despite Coetzee’s move to Australia in 2002. Such an identification was easy to communicate, given the longstanding political and cultural commitments to the anti-apartheid cause in Sweden, the particulars of which have been detailed by Tor Hellström (1999) and Håkan Thörn (2006). This primed the Swedish reception of both writers’ work. “South Africa” had been so entrenched as a national concern in Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s, that there was a sense of shared ownership in the emergent (in 1991) or (in 2003) consolidated democracy under ANC leadership.

The political anti-apartheid reading in Sweden of the two writers rehearsed to an extent tensions internal to the South African literary field in the 1980s. This produced a conventional juxtaposition of Gordimer and Coetzee as two exemplary but contrasting South African writers: one engagée, the other championing literary autonomy. In Sweden, of course, the degree to which critics and journalists were aware of the finer shadings of local South African debates differed greatly. Gordimer’s close friend Per Wästberg had a firm grasp of her South African context, and Anders Carlsson in Svenska Dagbladet stands out as the best informed commentator on Coetzee and South Africa; other critics read their work more at a distance, or rather, as texts with their main presence in the target context of Sweden. As Michael Chapman correctly points out, however, the significant differences between the two moments further underscored the shifting valencies of Gordimer’s and Coetzee’s work. If 1991 marked, in South Africa, the turbulent and precarious moment of transition from apartheid, by 2003 “the melodramatic politics of the 1980s […] had given way to more nuanced challenges” such as the globalisation of capital and “the doublespeak of multiculturalism” (Chapman 59). Retrospectively, in other words, the contrasting moments of their respective prizes seem fully attuned to the tenor of their work. A counterfactual swapping of the dates – imagining that Coetzee had been awarded in 1991 and Gordimer in 2003 – strains credibility, although Coetzee was mentioned by some already in 1991 as an alternative choice.

In Gordimer’s case, it is worth noting that gender was an equally important aspect of the reception. Incredible though it may seem, she was the first woman to win the literature prize in 25 years, after Nelly Sachs in 1966. This fact alone produced a range of reactions, some of them belittling. With Coetzee, predictably, gender was less foregrounded and some critics eagerly assimilated him to a “universal,” that is, a distinctly Western and male-coded notion of literary belonging. But here, too, there were some complaints that yet another male had been awarded the prize (Skugge).

Methodologically, the clock-like regularity of literature prize announcements – always on a Thursday early in October – offers a short-cut to limiting an investigation such as this one. Here, my main source material consists of articles published in the two leading broadsheet dailies in Sweden, Dagens Nyheter (DN) and Svenska Dagbladet (SvD), from September to December in 1991 and 2003. I also include a few references to the tabloids Expressen and Aftonbladet, but DN and SvD carry the main burden of press coverage of the literature prize. As a quantitative indicator, there are from October to December 1991 almost twice as many mentions of “Gordimer” in DN and SvD as in the other two papers. The disparity is diminished in 2003 for the search term “Coetzee,” but there are also in total far fewer mentions of Coetzee in 2003 than of Gordimer in 1991 (in DN 95 versus 680). A likely reason for this – unless there is a glitch in the search engine – is Coetzee’s refusal to engage with the press, except on his own terms. Besides press material, however, I also look into the Nobel lectures, given their reversal of the media logic: the lectures are media events in their own right, but here the laureates are in control, or at least more in control than otherwise. Rather than being written about, it is now their voices we hear, speaking in and to the intellectually most substantial of the various prize-related events. The rhetorical strategies employed in the lectures are in that sense exceptionally revealing. They both contribute to shaping the Nobel consecration and provide a view on how the laureates themselves understand that process. The implication here is that the meaning of the prize is not singular or set in stone, despite its ritualistic nature, but malleable and perspectival.

Finally, a disclosure: I am myself implicated in the material that I am studying here. I began contributing as a critic to Dagens Nyheter in 1991, and both then and in 2003 I was involved in that newspaper’s coverage of the laureates. I won’t indulge in analyses of my own contributions, except to mention them in a descriptive manner. It seems to me that the basic aim of my article – to demonstrate the co-consecrating function of the press and rhetorical positioning of the laureate’s voices – is not negatively affected by my own involvement all those years ago.

1 Speculation

The two papers in question are old rivals. SvD, founded in 1884, has a conservative profile, whereas DN, whose first issue appeared in 1864, is more center-liberal. Importantly however, the arts and culture section in DN (“kultursidorna”) has long nurtured a more radical profile that sometimes has been at odds with the paper’s official political line. Later changes notwithstanding, this was certainly the case in 1991 and even in 2003. Qualitatively, the two papers have been evenly matched, but in terms of symbolic capital, it is mainly DN that makes or breaks the careers of Swedish writers. That said, and without discounting the wider ecology of Swedish newspapers, DN and SvD have together been the main strategic sites for literary consecration within a broader national public sphere in Sweden. It is on that assumption that I have singled them out for scrutiny here.

The pre-announcement speculations are a crucial feature of the literature prize as a media event. Brief though they may be, these guesses are instructive. If we can assume that journalists are in the dark as to the Academy’s selection, the speculations provide us with a snapshot of world literary evaluation in the Swedish literary field at a given moment. They also indicate whether or not the choice of laureate will surprise the field. Neither Coetzee nor Gordimer did. On 2 October 1991 Gordimer was mentioned in DN prominently among a number of other plausible winners. But it is the other names that are more intriguing. The Estonian writer Jaan Kross (1920–2007), who never won the prize, was foregrounded in 1991 partly because of the dramatic political events in the Baltic countries at the time. Considering how forgotten, internationally, Kross is now, there is reason to interpret this as primarily a “heteronomous” guess, motivated by political developments. Other names mentioned – Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul and Kenzaburō Ōe – would indeed receive the prize later in a more “autonomous” vein, whereas John Updike, Hugo Claus, John Ashbery, Ismail Kadaré and Zbigniew Herbert did not. SvD did not speculate on possible winners in 1991.

In 2003, DN presents the speculations as a full-page story in its own right, imagining what the then permanent secretary Horace Engdahl will utter when announcing the prize (Grünbaum). Coetzee is indeed included, alongside Édouard Glissant, Janet Frame, Don DeLillo, Adonis, Nurrudin Farah and Tomas Tranströmer. The same year, SvD asks some critics and authors to suggest names – which besides Coetzee include Adonis, DeLillo, Tranströmer, but also Svetlana Alexievich, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Elfriede Jelinek, Inger Christensen and Mario Vargas Llosa (“Adonis, Tranströmer eller Don DeLillo?”). Once again, with hindsight, these are good guesses: Jelinek was awarded the following year, in 2004, Vargas Llosa in 2010 and Alexievich in 2015.

If we grant that these conjectures in the press are somewhat random, only a more systematic study could determine how random they really are. In fact, the impression one gets is that external observers make a judicious estimate of writers who currently are in the “laureate position,” to use Günter Leypoldt’s term. This does not preclude real surprises, as when Abdulrazak Gurnah won the prize in 2021, but this was not the case in 1991 and 2003. According to one source, Gordimer had been on the Academy’s short-list for 15 years (Werkelid). Hence, there was an alignment of the Academy’s restricted group values and the wider critical field in Sweden, and Gordimer’s and Coetzee’s pre-prize fame is beyond doubt. Gordimer’s first novel, The Lying Days (1953), appeared in Swedish as early as 1955, and all of her subsequent fiction – plus much of her essayistic writing – had been swiftly translated (which makes it all the more striking that her last novel, No Time Like the Present from 2012, has not been translated). In Coetzee’s case, Swedish translations began with his third novel, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), which was published in Sweden in 1982. In the next two decades, his subsequent novels were promptly translated, with a gradual build-up of critical appreciation and market success around the turn of the millennium. It was particularly Disgrace (1999), or Onåd in Swedish, that made Coetzee a household name in Sweden. The long Swedish reception history of both writers evidently prepared the ground for their Nobel-related reception.

From a world literary angle, the moment of pre-award speculation presents us with an instantiation of actually existing world literature – excluding, of course, previous laureates. By “actually existing,” I am implying that world literature always relies on local perceptions of what counts in the larger world beyond that locality. These perceptions may, or indeed must, contradict each other – the field is also a field of struggle – but together, the names mentioned (from Kross to Oe, from Jelinek to Toer) form a map where, tautologically, only those who are named have an effective existence in a public Swedish Nobel domain. These are the visible islands, whereas the vast remaining continents of literature in the world are at any given moment submerged in the sea of silence.

2 A Laureate Is Born

The announcement, always at 1 PM sharp, is a nerve-wracking moment for the media. Radio and television are expected to provide in-depth reporting off the cuff, and the newspapers only have a few hours at their disposal to produce a spread in the next morning’s edition. Success in that competition depends on the strength of the editors’ networks and their ability to identify in advance which authors might be in the laureate position. The relative lack of surprise in Gordimer’s and Coetzee’s cases is reflected in the substantial coverage provided by DN and SvD the following day.

The coverage comprises a range of modes: summaries of the oeuvre, critical assessments, reporting from press conferences, reactions to the prize from around the world. Akin to the “king’s two bodies” (Kantorowicz), the reporting tends to split (but also to fuse) the writer’s “natural body” – i. e. the writer as a person – and the “literary body,” or that quasi-transcendent idea of an author-name that underwrites the validity of the oeuvre. This ambiguity is not always optimally managed by the papers. In Gordimer’s case, her gender position and outspoken political commitments tended to overshadow actual engagements with her writing. In Coetzee’s case, the fact that his “natural body” was known to withdraw from media scrutiny produced an obsession with that very fact – including also expressions of relief when it became clear that he would indeed travel to Stockholm and receive the prize in person.

As mentioned previously, the reporting on Gordimer in 1991 stands out for the way it dealt with gender. Being the first woman to receive the prize in 25 years, it was predictable that this would be celebrated. It also led to some strange pronouncements, however. Carl Otto Werkelid in SvD calls her a “girl” and struggles to accommodate literary value with a recognition of gender: “The fact that [Gordimer] has commanded the Academy’s increasing respect is entirely on account of her literary quality and capacity – not at all because she is a woman” (Werkelid).1 The qualification is awkwardly revealing by foregrounding what is claimed to be unimportant. But even Sara Lidman – an old friend of Gordimer’s and one of Sweden’s great twentieth century writers – surprisingly emphasises her beauty as a young woman (Werkelid; Lidman). At the same time, this was also an occasion for feminist literary scholars to advance their positions among the public. Birgitta Holm, a literary scholar whose influence peaked around this time, criticises the male-dominated Academy for their selection policies: “it has to do with inadequate reading skills among men, they are less capable of reading across gender boundaries” (Samuelsson). On the whole, however, the decision is received with enthusiasm, and it is notable that DN is less coy about gender than SvD. One of DN’s main endorsements comes from Susan Sontag who places Gordimer in the company of the greatest nineteenth-century (European) novelists: “Gordimer’s imagination and intellect is astonishingly wide-ranging and her work has an incomparable historical and political relevance” (“Hurra, hurra!”).

The entanglement of literature and current politics proved to be a more complex challenge for the reporters. Given Gordimer’s own high profile in the anti-apartheid movement and the ongoing media coverage of the still uncertain transition in South Africa, the political implications of her work and the prize were repeatedly brought up – not just in Sweden – to such an extent that Gordimer admonished journalists at a press conference in New York: “Please remember that it is a prize for literature” (Pehrson). This indicates, however, how Gordimer herself accepted the conventional terms on which “literature” and “politics” were discussed. As I elaborate in section three below, it can be read as a symptom of postcolonial anxiety in view of the world republic of letters and its perceived values. Gordimer’s own statements present the literary and the political as two differently valued criteria of acceptance in the world republic, but her defence of her literary credentials have the counter-productive result of reinforcing the contrast between the two and – ultimately – her politically assigned role as a witness or spokesperson of the anti-apartheid movement. It is, in brief, a Catch-22 situation in which Gordimer’s own difficulty to account for the necessarily political nature of her literary practice reinforced an ambivalence in the reception. As Rita Barnard has discussed, the tension between the aestheticist and political commitments was “the wellspring of the productive energies of Gordimer’s long career” (“Locating Gordimer” 100), but in her theoretical and public pronouncements – as in much of the critical reception – it remained an unresolved contradiction.

On the whole, however, there was in this instance a pragmatic division of labour between “reporters” and “critics” in the Swedish press. The former dealt mainly with Gordimer’s commentary on current affairs; the latter with her work. On 4 October, both DN and SvD ran articles that offered surveys and appraisals of her oeuvre, after which the literary criticism accumulated. Already two days later, DN published a translation of “Amnesty,” the concluding story in Gordimer’s new book Jump, and yet another two days later, Stefan Jonsson reviewed this book (in the original). On 15 October, Stefan Helgesson contributed a piece of eco-criticism focusing on Gordimer’s 1974 novel The Conservationist. SvD ran a short essay by Gordimer on 6 October and then a long article by Ingmar Björkstén on 10 December. Nina Lekander also reviewed Jump in Expressen on 10 December.

Both Jonsson and Lekander were sympathetic readers, with Jonsson cutting closest to the bone by observing how the narrative patterning of the stories, with their charged encounters, was expressive of a fundamentally divided and racialised South African society. Björkstén’s piece, also focusing largely on Jump, was different. If SvD’s first long article on 4 October by the literature professor Jöran Mjöberg was mostly appreciative, Björkstén’s article was acerbic. A well-known critic and writer of fiction himself, Björkstén was no newcomer to South African literature. In 1983, he had published a book of reportage based on travels and interviews he had undertaken in South Africa (including an interview with Gordimer). In December 1991, he begins somewhat bizarrely by lamenting that Graham Greene hadn’t been honoured by the Academy, and then develops a mostly negative account of Jump. He notes that it had been coolly received by The Washington Post, after which he presents his own reading. Only two of the sixteen stories are successful, in his view. He does engage with the stories themselves, nonetheless, and integrates in this way Gordimer in the broader literary critical discourse in Sweden at the time. Björkstén seems anxious, however, to signpost his international outlook, and his assessment of Jump is of a piece with John Banville’s negative review in The New York Review of Books that had upset Gordimer in November that year (Roberts 513). Although he didn’t mention Banville, Björkstén’s attempted deconsecration of Gordimer, in rivalry with the Academy, chimed with a broader international tendency of hedging the literary appreciation of Gordimer.

The most idiosyncratic and intimate account of Gordimer – written by Sara Lidman – appeared in Aftonbladet a few days before the prize-giving. A well-known engaged writer herself, Lidman is on record as the one who introduced Gordimer to Frantz Fanon’s anticolonial treatise The Wretched of the Earth in the 1960s (Kullberg 223). Here, again, she describes the young Gordimer as having been exceptionally beautiful, but it gets more interesting when she recounts a road trip the two of them made in Kenya in the 1960s. With Gordimer in the driver’s seat, they suddenly entered a long stretch of road that had turned into a mud pool after the rains. Flooring the accelerator, and with the car sliding perilously at different angles, Gordimer pulled through, but the experience had – by Lidman’s description – set her on edge.

The literary critical element of Lidman’s article concerns Gordimer’s 1981 novel July’s People. Here, Lidman short-circuits the conventional reading of the novel as being exclusively about South African conditions. Life in the rural village where the white protagonists end up remind her instead of class differences in her modest upbringing in the far north of Sweden: “What Nadine Gordimer does in July’s People is showcase Western civilisation’s disavowal of the land/the province/the prerequisite for food – the NATIVE with bare hands and feet who knows the price of coffee and milk prior to any listings on the stock exchange” (Lidman). Speaking with the confidence of a writer with the right to be subjective, this response to the novel is presciently eco-critical in tendency and helps to displace an all-too limiting South Africanisation of Gordimer.

In 2003, barring a few negative comments on the austerity of his style and the excessive intertextuality of Foe and The Master of Petersburg, the critics (yes, including myself) were quite unanimous in singing Coetzee’s praises. The coverage on the day after the announcement is also extensive and surprisingly well prepared – an indication, perhaps, of what the editors were expecting. In SvD, Magnus Eriksson provided an incisive, comprehensive survey of Coetzee’s novels, and concluded that Coetzee demonstrates how each condition carries the seeds of its own negation: “reconciliation may lead to humiliation, whereas disgrace might liberate the soul.” In DN articles by Helgesson (“Att läsa Coetzee är att bli genomlyst”) and Ola Larsmo jointly covered most of the oeuvre. Political readings of his work seem less of a burden for Coetzee’s literary credentials than for Gordimer, arguably because he had throughout his career engaged in a “politics of writing” (to use Attwell’s term in South Africa and the Politics of Writing) rather than approach literature as something that may or may not address politics. Underpinning such a poetics is a poststructuralist notion of discursivity as constitutive of how reality is perceived, thereby incapacitating any neat separation of literature, politics, or indeed history as ontologically distinct phenomena. Famously, Coetzee’s lecture “The Novel Today” (published in 1988) had stated the terms on which he – in the conflictual climate of South Africa at the time – wished the novel genre to function meta-discursively as a rival to “history” (discursively understood), and not as its handmaiden.

Although, as several critics have pointed out (Barnard, “Beyond Rivalry”; Twidle, 11–12), “The Novel Today” should not be treated as the last word on the matter, it helps to explain Coetzee’s unwillingness to comply with the demands of newspaper journalism, which is of course yet another discursive construct. To the extent that Coetzee the writer only exists through the texts he produces, responding to interviews would be a form of text-production attached to his name but beyond his control. For this reason, simply by withholding his voice from journalists, he managed largely to avoid the simplified opposition between literature and politics. This frustrated the Swedish journalists at first, who found themselves having to repeat the general impression of Coetzee’s withdrawnness – as illustrated by the heading “The silent one arrives in Stockholm” (Mälarstedt). He did however grant one interview, but on his own terms. On 8 December 2003, DN published – in Swedish and in English – an exchange between David Attwell and Coetzee, written specifically for the occasion and allowing the latter to explain how he disapproves of outdated notions of “the writer as sage”: “you prove your competence as a writer and an inventor of stories, and then people clamour for you to make speeches and tell them what you think about the world” (Coetzee and Attwell).

3 Two Nobel Lectures

To the extent that the gradual build-up of the Nobel Prize is a literary event, it culminates shortly before the award ceremony on 10 December, namely, when the prize winner gives her or his lecture a few days before the 10th. This is perhaps the key moment when the “two bodies” of the writer fuse to form one consecrated whole. Yet, it is hard to imagine a starker contrast – thematically, stylistically – than that between Gordimer’s and Coetzee’s two lectures. As such, the contrast is fully consonant with the differences in reception of the two writers and serves, if anything, to strengthen entrenched perceptions of their different poetics.

The lecture venue is the lavish eighteenth-century Börssalen – originally built as a stock exchange – that is packed to capacity with local literati, journalists, academics and international guests. From the viewpoint of a writer, it is a challenging moment to master. Dominik Zechner observes how acceptance speeches are a profoundly ambiguous genre that demands an expression of gratitude that must also seem freely given. More, in the case of literary prizes, it can seem to offer “a toolkit, an ensemble of philosophemes that may appear to unlock the hermetic seclusion of a given set of texts” (Zechner 1156). The Nobel lecture, strictly speaking, is not an acceptance speech, yet receiving the prize is conditional on giving the lecture (hence the drama around Bob Dylan’s delayed and ultimately ham-fisted lecture in 2016). It is, in that sense, a moment where literary value is exchanged for monetary value and the writer steps forward to speak as a laureate. Gordimer’s and Coetzee’s strategies to master that moment could not have been more different, however. Where Gordimer overreaches herself in an attempt to comply with the values of the world republic of letters, Coetzee deftly confounds any expectations of an ex cathedra lecture and tells an enigmatic story instead. In retrospect, Gordimer seems to be on the defensive, responding to her detractors and trying – but failing – to suppress a sense of anxiety. After the Nobel announcement she revealingly said “I long thought I was the constant runner-up, solid but not exciting enough” (“Jubel när evig tvåa tar priset”), and her biographer, Ronald Suresh Roberts, mentions not only that she had reacted with hostility to Banville’s NYRB review, but also that her lecture notes included phonetic transcriptions of words that she was unsure how to pronounce (512). These details present us with a writer who is self-conscious and struggling to negotiate a gap between a colonial, “remote” upbringing and the authority of a simultaneously desired and threatening Western literary world.

The effects of this gap become evident in her lecture, “Writing and Being,” which strikes the highest possible note in the opening line from the gospel of Saint John: “In the beginning was the Word.” Here we are in an ambiguously secular-religious domain where literature, writing, and the Word all apparently promise transcendence. The writer, in her view, has a privileged vision, whereas critics and theorists vainly attempt “to make definitive through methodology the writer’s grasp at the forces of being.” However, Gordimer’s insistence on stating this belief somehow weakens its rhetorical force. Mentioning more than thirty canonical writer-names in her lecture – including Borges, Barthes, Achebe, Rushdie, Camus, Sartre, Kafka and Yeats – Gordimer interlaces cameos of her own biography with the grandest imaginable trajectory leading from the beginnings of human language to current geopolitical conundra. The result is a lecture that reifies the literary in an attempt to safeguard the laureate’s right to be where she is, speaking at the Academy. This is what it can sound like:

Writers themselves don’t analyze what they do; to analyze would be to look down while crossing a canyon on a tightrope. To say this is not to mystify the process of writing but to make an image out of the intense inner concentration the writer must have to cross the chasms of the aleatory and make them the word’s own, as an explorer plants a flag. Yeats’ inner “lonely impulse of delight” in the pilot’s solitary flight, and his “terrible beauty” born of mass uprising, both opposed and conjoined; E.M. Forster’s modest “only connect”; Joyce’s chosen, wily “silence, cunning and exile”; more contemporary, Gabriel García Márquez’s labyrinth in which power over others, in the person of Simon Bolivar, is led to the thrall of the only unassailable power, death – these are some examples of the writer’s endlessly varied ways of approaching the state of being through the word.

The fact that each and every name mentioned in the lecture is male adds to the slightly disheartening impression that Gordimer is anxious not to seem concerned in the least with the gender of authors, lest it should compromise her own legitimacy as a celebrated writer (which of course demonstrates the relevance of gender as a category).

J.M. Coetzee’s lecture “He and His Man” is also strongly gender-coded in its very title, yet it dispenses entirely with name-dropping and avoids in this way the trap that Gordimer set for herself. Instead, the lecture presents a situation where – as the audience gradually understands – an unnamed fictional character (Robinson Crusoe) corresponds with and reflects on his unnamed writer (Daniel Defoe). In the recording of the lecture, we see how Coetzee had prefaced his talk with an anecdote about his reading of Robinson Crusoe as a child, and his confusion when an encyclopedia claimed that the novel had been written by Defoe – and not by Crusoe himself. Playful and elusive, the lecture then proceeds to perform the literary rather than speak of it. With precise rhythm and arcane English words – “fen,” “duckoys” – each paragraph both evades and invites interpretation. Beginning with an account of fowl-hunting in Lincolnshire, the lecture stages a give-and-take between “he” (supposedly Crusoe) and “his man” (Defoe), turning the assumed primacy of the author on its head by allowing this version of Crusoe to be the lecture’s main subjectivity. There is, inevitably, an intertextual dimension to this performance, not just in its embedded allusions to much of Defoe’s work. One of Jorge Luis Borges’s shortest pieces, “Borges and I,” performs a related splitting of the authorial voice: “The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.” Coetzee takes this one step further, however, by displacing his voice entirely onto the figures of Crusoe and Defoe. The result is a dispersed mode of narration that consistently draws attention to itself, metafictionally, and makes the listener/reader acutely aware of a discursive doubling or folding whereby the said also says something else. All of this is underwritten, of course, by the author name “Coetzee,” but it functions very differently to the author name “Gordimer” in her lecture. When in full swing, the lecture luxuriates in the power of fiction to create its own terms of reference, as in this passage:

A man, being drunk and it being late at night (another of his man’s reports), falls asleep in a doorway in Cripplegate. The dead-cart comes on its way (we are still in the year of the plague), and the neighbours, thinking the man dead, place him on the dead-cart among the corpses. By and by the cart comes to the dead pit at Mountmill and the carter, his face all muffled against the effluvium, lays hold of him to throw him in; and he wakes up and struggles in his bewilderment. Where am I? he says. You are about to be buried among the dead, says the carter. But am I dead then? says the man. And this too is a figure of him on his island.

“He and His Man”

Existentially charged, this allusive scene (recalling Defoe’s The Year of the Plague) is turned in on itself (through, for instance, the question “But am I dead then?”) and enables a reading beyond what it first apparently means (“this too is a figure of him on his island”). In sum, Coetzee does not abide by the ceremony of consecration and provide the expected rhetorical response to it. Or does he? In Nadine Gordimer’s defence, it should be noted that by mentioning author names such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Mongane Serote and Alex La Guma, she introduces in the space of the Nobel lecture a literary frame of reference wider than a canon of Western writers. Coetzee, by contrast, does in fact comply with expectations by remaining within a conventional canon. There is no inkling in his lecture that literature could be a concern beyond the West. Even so, from that vantage point, he contributes to shaping and bending the lecture in such a way that it may carry a more interesting meaning than simply being a repetition of a ritual. A perhaps obvious lesson to be drawn from this is that the Academy does not fully control the meaning of the Nobel Prize. Instead, there is a potential here to make it an event in the strong sense, through which the unanticipated can manifest itself.

The lectures, as implied above, are also the moment when the agency of the press is weakened. They are often published in Swedish translation in DN and SvD, but this is simply a service to the readers. Here it is the writer as writer that takes centre stage, also in the Swedish public sphere, whereas the Swedish critics are onlookers.

4 Concluding Remarks

A study of this kind does not lend itself to grandly general statements. There is an arbitrariness to press coverage, after all. Different constellations of editors and journalists will act differently from time to time; other, competing news events will affect the relative weighting of the Nobel. And yet, the ritualistic inertia – and comparability – in how the two leading Swedish newspapers deal with the Nobel prize for literature is notable, especially if one considers that these two examples are twelve years apart. From the pre-announcement speculation to the moment of the lecture (and the award ceremony shortly afterwards), one can see how the press actively participates in the making (or unmaking) of the laureate. Although it is the Swedish Academy that “names” the laureate, the Swedish press does not merely reflect this consecration passively, but participates in it. Similarly, Gordimer and Coetzee could not be described as passive recipients, but contributed, too, to the shaping of the prize. In Gordimer’s case, quite directly through her candid comments to the effect that she had won a literary prize, and must not be judged on political criteria. This was, one might say, her reading instruction directed at the press, yet with the unintended consequence of affirming a conventional separation of literature and politics. Coetzee did the exact opposite by avoiding direct commentary. Instead, through the interview granted to Attwell, he distanced himself from the very role of the writer as sage, and then, in his lecture, spoke in such a carefully circumspect way that he managed, in a sense, to transform the prize into a performance of the power of fiction.

In Gordimer’s case – as with many other laureates, I should add – there was a misreading of the lecture and its ritual of consecration as something fully predefined. This meant that her lecture only could conform with those expectations through its high style and name-dropping. Coetzee, instead, chose to make the lecture an occasion for creative non-compliance with expectations, thereby enabling something new to happen to the prize and keep its worldly manifestation in motion.

Writing in the 1990s, after Gordimer’s prize but before Coetzee’s, Pascale Casanova made a number of strong claims to the effect that the Nobel Prize for literature was a “virtually unchallenged arbiter of literary excellence” that bordered on “the definition of literary art itself” (147). This is not the moment to engage with such statements at length, yet one contribution of this article may have been to add some empirical grittiness to Casanova’s rather lofty view. The public and transnationally resonant definition of the literary is obviously the main stake in the collective production of the prize event. As one zooms in on multiple reactions to and assessments of the prize at the very moment of its coming-to-being in Stockholm, however, one discovers a lively, even messy, exchange of opinions that may or may not reinforce the consecrating power of the award. The prize is certainly there, as a ritual and an institution, yet its meaning is in a state of continued renegotiation.


All translations from newspaper articles in Swedish are mine.

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