For the past several years the month of October has produced, with monotonous regularity, an annual proclamation of bad tidings called the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is business as usual this year, though with an important and gratifying exception: for a change, there is good news along with the bad.
The good news is the selection of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the author of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "The Autumn of the Patriarch," for the 1982 award. But before reflecting on the pleasures that choice affords, let us contemplate the astonishing fact that the members of the Swedish Academy, in their collective ignorance and bias, have once again refused to give the award to the writer who deserves it above all others now living, Graham Greene.
Not since 1970, when the award was presented to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, has the Nobel for Literature gone to a writer whose stature rivals Greene's: not Neruda, not Boll, not -- sorry about that -- Singer or Bellow. Indeed, if one acknowledges that Solzhenitsyn was honored more for his implacable moral presence than for his artistic accomplishments, then we must go all the way back to 1949 and William Faulkner -- passing, as we do, Sartre and Pasternak and Camus and Hemingway and assorted other worthies -- before we encounter a writer as deserving of the honor as Greene.
The case for Greene has been made in many quarters and with far more eloquence than I can hope to summon forth. Suffice it to say that from 1929, with the publication of "The Man Within," through 1982 and the publication of "Monsignor Quixote," Greene has produced a body of literature matched in this century perhaps only by Faulkner's. Like all other writers who genuinely deserve to be called "great," he has found a large general readership as well as literary and scholarly ones; he speaks to the world, not to the academy.
Why he has been denied the award is a mystery, since the workings of that geriatric ward known as the Nobel selection committee are swaddled in secrecy. It is said that a small but obdurate minority resists his consecration; the grounds for its opposition are variously reported, depending upon which reports one reads, to be his perverse insistence on writing from time to time what he calls "entertainments," his irreverent view of orthodox Catholicism, his departure from England and the punitive taxes it imposes on successful writers, and his contempt generally for authority whether secular or ecclesiastical.
Whatever the exact explanation for it, the repeated denial of the Nobel to Greene is an instructive reminder of the political considerations that operate in the selection of the award, as well as of the necessity for regarding the award, no matter the recipient, with a healthy measure of disdain. There can be no question that a central reason for Greene's rejection is that his politics do not coincide with those of the Swedish Academy, which waits for Lefty; Greene is too bleak, too aware of life's ambiguities and compromises, for the apple-cheeked, idealistic, naive Swedes. If these considerations figure in the determination of the Nobel for Literature--and make no mistake about it, they most certainly do -- then the integrity of the award is compromised and trivialized; best think of it as the Nobel Prize for Ideological Rectitude with Literary Embellishments, and accord it the respect it thereby merits.
Garcia Marquez, it must be acknowledged, comes custom-tailored for the Academy. He has been in exile from his native Colombia in protest against its right-wing governments (though a recent change of administrations may change that), he is pals with Fidel Castro and Franc,ois Mitterrand, he donates money and speaks publicly on behalf of the socialist cause, especially in Latin America. The Nobel selection committee, while denying through its executive secretary that the award to Garcia Marquez had political implications, made those implications blatantly apparent by citing his fiction for being "strongly committed politically on the side of the poor and against domestic oppression and foreign economic exploitation." It is this hypocrisy on the part of the Academy, not Garcia Marquez's politics per se, that is so distasteful.
In any event, how convenient it is for the Academy that in addition to being so ideologically alluring, Garcia Marquez happens also to be the author of the greatest novel of the 20th century. The Academy gets to have its cake and eat it too, since the only objection that can possibly be raised to an award to Garcia Marquez is that it did not go to Greene. If, by comparison with Greene, Garcia Marquez has produced a relatively small body of work, that is not what matters; it is the towering accomplishment of "One Hundred Years of Solitude," and the not appreciably smaller one of "The Autumn of the Patriarch," that guarantee Garcia Marquez a high place in the world's literature at the youthful age of 54.
The greatness of those two novels, moreover, transcends any political motives that Garcia Marquez may have brought to the writing of them. "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is not about class and oppression in Latin America, though evidence of both is to be found in it; it is about time and memory, about human beings and "the unfathomable solitude that separated and united them at the same time," about a Latin American Everyfamily that "was a machine with unavoidable repetitions, a turning wheel that would have gone on spinning into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle." Similarly, "The Autumn of the Patriarch" is not about the depredations of a Latin American dictator, though it describes many of them; it is about the human capacity for self-delusion and self-destruction, the odd quirks of fate that give one man authority over the destinies of others, the uncontrollable march of events.
In honoring Garcia Marquez, the Swedish Academy got lucky; it is not easy to criticize an institution when it gives a prize to a writer who so transparently deserves it. But so long as Graham Greene is alive and denied the Nobel, then whoever receives it will have won a tainted prize. It is not the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez that is diminished by this stupid injustice -- that, fortunately, is beyond the reach of the Swedish Academy -- but the Nobel itself and the people who award it. Like the Swedish currency in which Garcia Marquez will be paid his $157,000, the Nobel for Literature has been devalued.