The Nobel Prize in Literature, though still regarded by most literary establishments as the preeminent such award, and the only one with genuine pretensions to being considered a global literary award, has increasingly been viewed as a subject of controversy and critique. Some of these complaints are quite valid - how, indeed, can one jury assess all of world literature when so little is available in translation and its members can only read so many languages? - and some are a tad silly - some Nobel winners have faded into obscurity despite being awarded, a claim that seems to presume that a worthwhile writer couldn't possibly be forgotten (or rediscovered, for that matter). As one would expect, the Nobel Prize has been given to more men than women, and most of the winners are European. Rather than focus on all the thousands of worthy writers that the Swedish Academy hasn't honored - an endless, and ultimately thankless, task - a more fruitful approach looks at the long list of winners as one more source of great books for readers. With that in mind, here are six great books by Nobel Prize recipients, six of the fourteen women (out of 114 winners overall) who have won:
Reeds in the Wind - Grazia Deledda (1926)
Only the second woman to win the Nobel, Deledda wrote more than thirty books, most of them still unavailable in English. She is the most famous writer to emerge from her native Sardinia, with the exception of the political and cultural theorist Antonio Gramsci. Her most famous novel, Reeds in the Wind, set in Sardinia like most of her books, tells the story of the Pintor family, once noble and now fallen into poverty after one of the daughters ran away to the mainland and destroyed the family's honor. When her son, Giacinto, returns years later, looking for a share in the family patrimony, their faithful servant Efix, a martyr to guilt, sees a chance to expiate his part in the scandal. Unlike most of the writing on the Italian South and honor, Reeds in the Wind refuses to traffic in stereotypes, though it is deeply rooted in specifically regional traditions. Yearning and wistful, but without the pious sentimentality of poverty porn, this novel is a monument to a way of life that died long ago. I also recommend Cosima.
Dragon Seed - Pearl S. Buck (1938)
The first American woman to win the Nobel, Buck was not only a writer, but an activist who courted controversy with her progressive views on race and gender. Her writing, both stylistically and thematically, is quite out of fashion today, but her books built bridges between the West and the Asian countries, especially China, she refused to exoticize. She grew up in China and spoke fluent Chinese, but was banned from returning to her adopted country after the communist revolution. Dragon Seed, like most of her novels, is set in China; its protagonists are the peasants who suffered the Rape of Nanking when the Japanese invaded in 1937. Buck's insistence on privileging a view of history from the point of view of those with no political power is especially striking when one considers that this novel was published three years before World War II ended. I also recommend The Good Earth, The Mother, and Pavilion of Women.
Map - Wisława Szymborska (1996)
The first Polish woman to win the Nobel, Szymborska cultivated an elegant, acerbic, and ironically luminescent poetic style. Though she is often labelled an 'accessible' poet, and certainly her poetry offers a great deal of pleasure and rarely resists a simple surface interpretation, Szymborska's work yields rich sediments of meaning when read and reread with attention. She nimbly walks a tightrope between a visceral intimacy with her readers and a slightly sardonic aloofness. This is poetry that exudes an Arctic coldness that is nevertheless profoundly human and giving. Map collects all of Szymborska's poetry that has been translated (by Clare Cavanaugh and Stanisław Barańczak) into English.
Women as Lovers - Elfriede Jelinek (2004)
It's small wonder that cinematic provocateur Michael Haneke adapted Jelinek's novel, The Piano Teacher, since the director's surgical and pitiless take on humanity finds its match in Jelinek's radical, anti-capitalist, feminist critique of the state of things. The inherent violence of pornography and sex in a climate of misogyny is a constant theme in Jelinek's work. In Women as Lovers, two girls who work at an underwear factory take opposite approaches to marriage: one follows the inclinations of her heart and the other calculates on the best possible material future. In a capitalist economy run by men, there is a right choice and a wrong choice. This is bitter stuff, but it's also unfailingly brilliant. I also recommend Lust.
The Grass Is Singing - Doris Lessing (2007)
The author of more than fifty books, Lessing began her career with this searing novel set in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) about the twisted relationship between a white farmer's wife, miserable in the heat and perennial failure of her husband's agricultural efforts, and their black 'houseboy.' Originally published in 1950, the book catapulted Lessing into the center of raging controversies surrounding racial oppression in the British colonies. Though she would later write science fiction, Lessing remained resolutely anti-utopian throughout her career, cutting deep into the rottenness of racism, economic exploitation, misogyny, and imperialism without giving in to the easy temptations of didacticism or strident polemicism. I also recommend The Golden Notebook, The Fifth Child, and Mara and Dann.
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage - Alice Munro (2013)
The first Canadian winner of the Nobel, Munro is justly worshiped as a high priestess of the short story. I remember the burst of devotional ardor that greeted the publication of this collection, and it is indeed a tour de force. Munro has a special talent for rendering the minute psychological meanderings of her often quite ordinary protagonists as fascinating as any epic journey filled with incident and drama. Two teenage girls write fake love letters to a middle-aged housekeeper, a woman with cancer simmers with fury at her cheating husband, a new widow finds an unexpected note in her dead husband's pocket. Munro's fiction is free of sensationalism, but has too much lyric subtlety and moral complexity to participate in a social realist tradition. I also recommend Friend of My Youth and Lives of Girls and Women.