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Nobel laureates in literature: the good, the bad and the Nazi

October 25, 2009 |  1:30 pm

When the Nobel Prize in literature was announced this month, the name "Herta Muller" met much American head-scratching. Muller, an ethnically German Romanian who writes of trials of living under a repressive dictatorship, has a strong reputation in Europe that hasn't gained much momentum in the U.S. Coming as it did on the heels of last year's choice, French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio -- few of whose works had been translated into English -- the selection made some wonder whether the prize is becoming increasingly esoteric.

Not to mention, in the case of Le Clézio's award, wrongheaded. His landmark 1980 work "Desert," recently released in translation in the U.S., is, our reviewer writes, "a truly dreadful book."

But it hasn't always been this way. A look at the list of Nobel literature laureates is stunning. Just a few: Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Mann, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Butler Yeats, Hermann Hesse, T.S. Eliot, Andre Gide, Albert Camus, Jose Saramago, V.S. Naipaul, Naguib Mahfouz, Gunter Grass, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Octavio Paz. And many Americans: William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck, Eugene O'Neill, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison. It's enough to inspire a years-long reading binge.

Some Nobel laureates have been forgotten. The first, French poet and essayist Sully Prudhomme, has not exactly remained a household name since receiving the prize in 1901.

And then there's Knut Hamsun. The Norwegian author's book "Hunger" (1890) was praised both as a modernist work and for its critique of modernity. When he won the Nobel in 1920, he was thought of as a leading humanist, but 20 years later, he became a Nazi. An enthusiastic one: after meeting Joseph Goebbels, he mailed him his Nobel medal in admiration. After the war, he was found guilty of crimes against Norway.

This is the 150th anniversary of Hamsun's birth, which is being celebrated in his home country. Two new books return to his difficult legacy, looking simultaneously at his politics and his prose. In our pages today, Matthew Shaer looks at "Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter" by Ingar Sletten Kolloen and "Knut Hamsun: The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance" by Monika Zagar. Shaer writes:

To thrive, an artist must leave the city for the rough living of the country. He must immerse himself [Hamsun wrote] in "the unpredictable chaos of perception, the delicate life of the imagination held under the microscope; the meanderings of these thoughts and feelings in the blue, trackless, traceless journeys of the heart and mind, curious workings of the psyche, the whisperings of the blood, prayers of the bone, the entire unconscious life of the mind."

In his prime, Hamsun always wrote like this -- beautifully, poetically and savagely. ...

And yet Hamsun, personally and politically, was a monster.

Without "Hunger," Shaer writes, we would not have Kafka's "A Hunger Artist." That's one measure -- and the Nobel is another -- that marks it as an important work, one that should be read. Or should it? If Hamsun's work is evaluated through the lens of his politics, is he better forgotten?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: William Faulkner in 1955.