I hid a love letter in a book for you
Let me tell you more.
Visualize that I am sitting in a coffee shop, one that is mostly metaphorical. It is getting cold, so I am drinking hot chocolate and wearing a long, dark, and muted olive green coat. With me is a book, Traveling On One Leg, and I am about 30 pages in, but a bit distracted. I pause from reading and look around. I am looking for someone, but not my friend who recommended this book.
This friend, Mr. Engdahl, with whom I frequently disagree, provides uncultured Americans with an assignment every year. He selects an obscure, normally European, and most frequently challenging author, and awards them a Nobel Prize. I gloss over the details: nominations, short lists, his 17 illustrious co-committee members, but the moral remains.
Yet this year would be different. Mr. Engdahl was replaced as the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy by Mr. Englund, and a second-syllable change brings criticisms of the “eurocentricity” of the academy. The academy was berated as a group of Europeans sitting around reading the books of other Europeans. So this autumn, as the leaves begin to litter the ground, we are granted not with an unknown, difficult writer from Europe, but Herta Müller: an unknown, difficult writer from Europe.
Well, I suppose change happens slowly.
Forsaking a more in-depth discussion of the politics of this choice (Mr. Engdahl of course does still sit on the academy), I will tell you my own story. I went to the library, not, as you would have expected, for a coffee, but to find Müller’s books.
Now although I joke that she is not exactly well-known, to most readers, most writers are unknown. Müller has won a number of prizes, some quite large, and not all of them German. And as a semi-well-known-in-literary-circles writer, she has had five of her books translated into English. Sure, this is only five out of more than 20, and most having been published by smaller presses, they will not be easy to find — there seemingly do exist people like me who follow the Nobel Prize in literature and are now out searching for her books.
And yes, the publishing houses are already turning their giant, and slow, and rusting gears. As soon as the prize is announced, they are acquiring rights, and in this case, finding translators, and preparing that golden seal that will grace the cover of each volume: “Winner of the Nobel Prize.” It is these that will be set up in Barnes and Noble, displayed to attract the shrinking subculture of people who read literature that won’t ever make the bestsellers lists, of people who read real, physical, paper and ink books, of people who read.
But I have no need to wait for this; I have access to Carnegie Mellon’s own Hunt Library, which, surprise you as it may, had four of Müller’s books translated into English and waiting for me. And here is my dilemma. Of course, I would like to read all of these books immediately, but what if, by some chance, some unlucky fate, another person at Carnegie Mellon would also like to read Müller’s work? I could not be so greedy as to scoop up all of these books.
The answer I struck upon was to take three of these four, and in the fourth leave a literary love letter. The words of it are lost to the page, but I felt a need to reach out to you, that kindred soul (I will assume there is only one of you). You, that other person, who chose also to follow the advice of the Swedish Academy and reach out to a writer who without a prize would have remained untouched on the shelf.
I have since read Nadirs, originally published as Niederungen, Müller’s first book of short stories. It moves quickly and without wasted emotion, though it is dense and often jumps from event to event without warning. The stories are, with the exception of the title story, very short, each one brutal. Brutal because of a clear truth in her storytelling and brutal because of their descriptive nature.
If the first step is reading, the second step is discourse. I need you, who would pick up the book I left behind, The Land of Green Plums, to meet me in this coffee shop. It is there that we would discuss her work. A meeting for the sake of literary progress. I might say the dream sequences are unnerving and violent and could be swapped for scenes in horror films. You might say you were disgusted by her frequent description of urine and other bodily functions, but that you appreciated the sense of hyperreality they created.
We might move on to a more meta-level discussion, asking if Müller should be a more present member of the American literature scene. You would argue that America needs to be more generally aware of the literature of the entire world, escaping the Anglo-centric domination of the media. We would agree with Pound that reading in English alone is not nearly enough. I would have to admit that it was the challenge of the award that led me to read her, but that I embrace this contest each year.
That is of course the point.
Whether from Mr. Engdahl or Mr. Englund, the Nobel Prize serves as a challenge to me, that once-a-year reminder to go out and read something new. And maybe that is their plan to break the America-locked view of the American reader, to get us out reading and discussing something new, something beyond the horizon of what we would normally read. However, I am still waiting for that literary discussion. My letter has thus far gone unanswered. I am sitting in that coffee shop, pulling my coat a little tighter around my waist, and looking up from my book, scanning the room, looking out the window, waiting.
It has been three weeks, and the book is still sitting on the shelf.