The Swedes have done it again. Reaching down into the grab bag of obscure eastern European writers, they have settled the 1984 Nobel Prize for Literature upon Jaroslav Seifert, a Czechoslovakian poet of whom almost no one outside his native land has heard. Once again the literati of the West have been sent dashing hither and yon in search of specialists equipped to answer the question of the hour: Who is this guy?
Well, for beginners he's yet another name on what has become, in the past decade, a long list of unknowns whom the Nobel for Literature has elevated into its own rather peculiar version of immortality. During that decade the Nobel has gone to three writers of international reputation (Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Gabriel Garcia Marquez), one of highly questionable claim upon such renown (William Golding), and six of whom the West was blissfully ignorant until the fickle finger of fate found them: Eugenio Montale, Vicente Aleixandre, Odysseus Elytis, Czeslaw Milosz, Elias Canetti and, now, Jaroslav Seifert.
If the past few days have been Seifert's moment in the global limelight, they've been pretty much the same for the tiny band of scholars and publishers who happen to know something about him. At the Library of Congress, The Washington Post managed to track down an expert in matters Czechoslovakian who pronounced Seifert "the greatest living Czech poet," though he also acknowledged that "outside the region he is hardly known except to specialists." Similarly, The New York Times found a Slavic scholar at Smith College, who said that "Seifert is a great poet who embodies the majestic tradition of Czech poetry -- he deserves the Nobel Prize," which is exactly what we would expect to hear from the author of the article on Seifert in "The Encyclopedia of World Literature."
There is absolutely no way to judge with any authority whether the praise of these specialists is justified, because Seifert's work is to all intents and purposes unavailable to American readers. One of his collections has been published in a bilingual edition by the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in Flushing, Queens, and another by the Spirit That Moves Us Press in Iowa City, Iowa, and if you can find either of these books in your corner bookstore then the place probably also carries the complete works of Robert Cunninghame-Graham of Gartmore.
All we have to go on at the moment is a handful of poems the newspapers have published. To American eyes, at least, the evidence they present is not unduly promising. The problem may lie in translation; specialists say that Czech and other eastern European languages do not translate satisfactorily into English, that the force of the original gets lost somewhere between Prague and New York. Let us hope they are right, for the tidbits to be found in last week's papers were not, to put it mildly, the work of a giant. Seifert's love for Prague permeates these poems and helps explain why they are much-loved by his fellow Czechs, but to a western reader the verse seems simplistic and naive: "Poetry is with us from the start./Like loving,/like hunger, like the plague, like war./At times my verses were embarrassingly foolish./But I make no excuse./I believe that seeking beautiful words/is better/than killing and murdering."
To any American who suffered through the rhetorical excesses of the '60s, the sentiment in those lines can only seem tired and jejune. It is probably unfair of us, though, to judge a poet from Czechoslovakia by the same standards we would impose on a folk singer from California. It is one thing for a pampered child of the American middle class to prattle on about making love, not war; it is quite another to hear comparable sentiments expressed by a man who for six decades has written his poetry under the thumb of one repressive regime after another. It is easy for the jaded, cynical American to read these lines and comment that "embarrassingly foolish" are just the right words for them; it is perhaps harder for that person to make an imaginative leap and attempt to read them in context.
The award of a Nobel to the likes of Seifert is easy enough to mock, yet there is ample reason for western readers to welcome it with pleasure. In some cases, the award to Czeslaw Milosz being the most notable recent example, the award has brought the work of a deserving writer out of relative obscurity and given him an audience appropriate to his accomplishments. In all cases, these awards have provided a useful reminder that writing is an international business, that distinguished writers are to be found in places outside the salons and coffeehouses of New York, London and Paris.
The tendency in the West is to assume that the Nobel is a western affair, to be divided up among the big boys of England, the Continent and the United States, with an occasional bow toward a Latin American (Garcia Marquez) or Russian (Solzhenitsyn) who has found literary favor in our quarters. When we cluck and moan over writers to whom the award somehow has not been granted, it is to plead the causes of our own favorites: Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Gu nter Grass, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty. We are not heard befalling the cruelty of fate toward writers in Bulgaria and Japan, Poland and Zimbabwe, for the simple reason that we don't know they're there.
Yet who are we, in our blissful ignorance, to say that the work and career of Jaroslav Seifert are of less value and importance than the work, say, of Greene, whose repeated rejection is indeed a scandal? The work of Seifert may mean nothing to us, but try this one on for size: The work of Saul Bellow surely means nothing to the Czechoslovakians, and the work of William Golding means even less to the Ghanaians. The motives of the Swedish Academy in pointing its quivering finger at Seifert may be clouded forever in mystery, but at least it has done the rest of the world the favor of reminding us that there are writers in Czechoslovakia and that their work is worth the world's respect.
When the Nobel goes to a writer as obscure but honorable as Seifert, perhaps we do best to think of it as an award not merely to an individual but to the very act of writing. Perhaps we do best to turn our attention away from the work, which for any number of reasons we may simply be unequipped to appreciate or understand, and focus it instead on the writer. Through two world wars, through Hitler and Stalin, through political maneuverings and writers unions, Jaroslav Seifert remained faithful first and above all to his art; probably it is for this, as much as for his words, that he is loved by his fellow Czechs, and certainly it is for this that he deserves his Nobel as much as any other writer to whom it has gone in recent years.