The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2015 has been awarded to the Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich. Her writing, until now not well known in the Anglophone world, is difficult to categorise. In works such as Voices from Chernobyl and War’s Unwomanly Face, Alexievich develops a distinctive kind of documentary writing, drawn from large numbers of interviews, which gives an intimate picture of what it is like to be the victim of war, of state negligence, brutality or totalitarianism.
Neither fiction nor non-fiction, the work develops what the secretary to the Swedish Academy Sara Danius calls a “new literary genre”, which gives us “a history of human beings about whom we didn’t know that much”.
This is surely a welcome and brave award, for at least two reasons. The statement from the academy announces that the prize was awarded “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.
The stress on the “polyphony” of her writing is significant; if it is the case that Alexievich is little known in the English-speaking world, this is partly because the financial pressures on contemporary publishers make it very difficult to publish work that does not conform to a very narrow set of generic and formal norms.
Alexievich’s work is difficult to categorise, and hence difficult to sell, and so nearly invisible. The prize will change this, and will at the same time do much to alert us to the growing importance of documentary writing elsewhere in Europe.
Equally significant is the assertion that Alexievich’s work represents a monument to a kind of experience – a kind of suffering – that ordinarily goes undocumented. In awarding Alexievich the prize, the academy has helped to ensure that the voices she records are heard on a much bigger stage.
With the award of this prize, the Academy is likely to bring an important body of writing to new audiences – something that is much harder to achieve with the better known contenders for the prize, such as Haruki Murakami or the perennial outsider Philip Roth.
So this is a progressive and exciting choice. But it is also one that is mired in the contradictions that surround the prize – contradictions that are perhaps inherent in the concept of literary prizes in general, but which are sharpened by the terms of Alfred Nobel’s original bequest.
Nobel specified in his will that all five prizes were to be awarded to those who, in a given year, “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. The prize for literature, he goes on, is to be awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
The history of the prize has been the history of attempts to interpret this stipulation. How are we to quantify or to characterise the benefit that art confers on mankind, and what does it mean for literature to take an “ideal direction”? There has been a long tradition of awarding the prize to writers, such as Alexievich, whose work “benefits” us by drawing attention to the injustices which are perpetrated against the weak, the powerless or the dispossessed.
We might think that the award of the prize to Samuel Beckett in 1969 and to J M Coetzee in 2003 belongs to that tradition. These writers, like Alexievich, might be seen to erect a “monument to suffering”.
But in awarding the prize to writers who give us such naked and powerful accounts of the privations of human beings, the academy might appear to be in breach of that second stipulation: that recipients should travel in an “ideal direction”. In awarding the prize to Coetzee, the academy wrote that the value of his work lay in part in his principled refusal of ideals, his absolute commitment to depicting suffering as it is, rather than as we would like it to be.
“His intellectual honesty”, the academy wrote, “erodes the basis of all consolation, and distances itself from the tawdry drama of remorse and confession”. This is work that resists the consolations or ornament of lyricism; but in recognising the power of this kind of vision, the academy is led to betray its spirit, to transform a difficult, bleak vision, into a redemptive one, one which leads in an “ideal direction”.
In honouring Alexievich, the academy has done a great service to literature, giving new audiences to a writer who has dedicated her life to speaking for those who have few means of articulating their own experiences. But it has done so in a way that exposes, again, the contradictions in Nobel’s bequest – contradictions that are absolutely central to the idea that we should think of art as conferring a benefit to mankind.
The Nobel Prize seeks to weaponise art, to deploy it in a battle against social injustice. This is a noble aim, but it leads us again and again to make something consoling out of a picture of suffering, or to imagine that art is a kind of alchemy that can make of the terrors it witnesses something restorative, or palliative.
The impossible demand that art makes of us is perhaps to recognise that its benefits are not measurable by existing instruments, and are not “conferred” upon mankind by any reliable mechanism. But in the absence of any readily available means of meeting that demand, the Nobel’s recognition of Alexievich’s courageous work is welcome indeed.