Reading Nobel Laureates in Literature

For the last couple of years, I have been deliberately choosing to read something from Nobel Laureates in Literature. Not in bulk, but one or two books a year. I don’t really know how it started. As a researcher, I follow the annual award of Nobel Prizes for scientific achievements. And let’s face it, the choice of the nominees and winners is more or less straightforward in that context. In literature, it’s a bit more complicated. And I got curious. Now, I’m not an expert on what is good literature. I’m only an expert on what I like or dislike. However, I wanted to know what’s all the fuss about.

The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded 112 times to 116 Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2019. That’s a lot of authors. I went through the whole list and discovered that I have read one or more books from only 6 Nobel Laureates:

2018: Olga Tokarczuk “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”

Olga Tokarczuk was announced the Nobel Laureate 2018 only in 2019. I tried to get my hands on one of her books right after the announcement but they were sold out instantly. I even tried my luck in a book shop in Warsaw (Poland) but to no avail. They didn’t even have her books in Polish (not to mention in English). So I had to pre-order and bide my time. The wait wasn’t very long. I got my hands on her novel ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ pretty quick. It falls somewhere in a crime and mystery genre but it’s not what you would call a classic crime story. Well, when the main character is a woman in her sixties that normal people would call batty because of her lifestyle and beliefs, you know it’s not going to be your average story. There are enough dead bodies and suspicious circumstances to intrigue the reader. However, the author also addresses the hypocrisy of what is considered normal (and let’s admit, we’re all not the biggest fans of crazy old ladies). In many ways, it was refreshingly different from the standard take on the classic crime story but keeping all the right elements for it still to deliver within the chosen genre.

2017: Kazuo Ishiguro “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”

I think that I started deliberately reading books of Nobel Laureates with Kazuo Ishiguro. It simply surprised me that I had never heard of him before despite the number of books he’s written. I first read ‘Never Let Me Go’ and it instantly became one of my favorite dystopian novels. It scared me how easily I could imagine it all happening in our society. I still sometimes think about it and it makes me uneasy. The second book I read was ‘The Remains of the Day’. Although it is masterfully written, I didn’t connect with it. So it was a bit of a struggle to get through it. However, I realized that Kazuo Ishiguro clearly can write anything. I will pick up something else from him soon enough just to see what else can he pull off.

1982: Gabriel García Márquez “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”

Oh, Marquez! Once I finally decided to read ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, I soon discovered that it will be a love and hate relationship (or something along those lines). This book is a challenge. It’s a literary masterpiece alright (I think) but it’s no page-turner for sure. I got the idea of the story, I got why it was written the way it was written, I understood the merit and contribution to the literary world… I just in no way enjoyed it. It was a chore to read it and I usually tackled only about 10 pages at one time. But I’m glad I did it! People seem to refer to it way too often, so it has become a must-read of sorts.

1962: John Steinbeck “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”

I’ve only read his novella ‘Of Mice and Men’ – a short, simple, and tragic story. It’s an undoubtedly well-written and authentic American classic. I don’t really have much more to add.

1954: Ernest Miller Hemingway “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style”

I had a certain image of the author in my head before I even read any of his novels. And I don’t know if I chose the easiest book to start with. I read ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ which depicts 4 days in Spanish Sierra during the Civil War. Yet again, it was a bit of a challenge. But I grew to love Hemingway’s writing style and the use of language. I have been putting off reading any other of his books but the right time will come… I know it!

1928: Sigrid Undset “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages”

Sigrid Undset is the only author on this list that I’ve read some time ago (in my teenage years). Of course, it was ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’ – her most famous literary achievement. All I remember now is that I devoured the books. And that I should probably re-read them some time to refresh my memory.

I have some plans to continue with my explorations of literary works of the Nobel Laureates. I have a couple more authors on my reading wishlist with various levels of importance: José Saramago (1998), Mario Vargas Llosa (2010), Knut Pedersen Hamsun (1920). I’m also looking forward to the announcement of the Nobel Laureate in Literature 2020.

In the meantime, what is your take on the Nobel Laureates in Literature? Any reading suggestions?

The full list of the Nobel Laureates in Literature

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