Author's Nobel Stirs Shock-and-'Bah'

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

Herta Who?

Herta Mueller won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, but many U.S. literary critics and professors contacted Thursday had never read Mueller, if they had heard of her at all.

"She's a closed book to me," was a typical comment.

"Nothing to talk about because I have never heard of this writer," said prominent literary critic and Yale professor Harold Bloom.

Even in Germany, where Mueller lives, her devoted fans were shocked at her big win. "We have been discussing this all day," said Sabeth Vilmar, manager of a bookstore in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood of Berlin. "She's popular with a minority of intellectuals, and of course the literary critics, who think she is brilliant. But she is not well known by a wide audience, and certainly not internationally."

The latest Nobel literature selection has revived chatter about whether the Nobel Committee favors European writers -- even the most obscure ones -- over Americans. Mueller, an ethnic German born in Romania, is the third European in a row to win the $1.4 million prize. It has been 16 years since an American won it (1993, Toni Morrison).

Since 1901, only 11 Americans -- including Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck -- have been given the honor, though the count is complicated by writers who hold dual nationalities or immigrate to the United States, such as 1980 winner Czeslaw Milosz.

Finally, some thought, an American might win this year. Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates were rumored to be on the shortlist.

The head of the Nobel jury had stirred up a backlash last year with disparaging comments about American literature. "The U.S. is too insulated, too insular. . . . They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," said Horace Engdahl. "You can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world."

This year, Peter Englund, the new permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, struck a conciliatory tone. "There are authors who really deserve and could get the Nobel Prize, and that goes for the United States and the Americas, as well," he told the Associated Press. Englund said that because judges in the Swedish Academy are European, they tend to have a European outlook on literature. "I think that is a problem. . . . We tend to relate more easily to literature written in Europe and in the European tradition."

But then along came Mueller.

"It's like they are in some other universe," a prominent editor and writer in New York said about the 18-member Nobel jury. He said passing over the likes of Roth, Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie diminishes the prize. "If the Nobel prize committee awarded the medicine prize like this, we'd still have polio."

Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which presents the National Book Awards, said there are, of course, many excellent writers abroad whom Americans don't know -- last year's Nobel winner was French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Cl├ęzio, also hardly a household name. He estimated that as few as 1.5 percent of books published in the United States are translations from another language.

Mueller was praised by the Nobel judges as a writer "who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed." Her collection of short stories, "Niederungen" (or "Nadirs" ), was smuggled in the 1980s from Romania to Germany, where she won an audience eager to hear her descriptions of life under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Her honor comes on the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism.

In Berlin, Mueller herself was surprised at the honor. "I think literature always emerges from things that have damaged someone, and there is a kind of literature where the authors don't choose their subject, but deal with one that was thrust upon them," she told reporters. Her other works include "The Land of Green Plums," "Traveling on One Leg" and "The Appointment."

Mueller's latest novel, "Atemschaukel," which translates as "Swinging Breath," will be titled "Everything I Possess I Carry With Me" when published in English.

Staff writer Craig Whitlock and special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.

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