The Nobility of a Nobel Laureate

22_March_Olga Tokarczuk

Credit: The European Bookshop

I am not going to write about the Nobel Prize for Literature. There are plenty of others doing far better work on that subject. I am not going to write about the two winners recently announced, separated by yearly prizes. So much has already been written about the mess the Nobel committee made of things last year. And I am not going to write about the winners’ books and their great literary work, much of which is unknown by most American readers.

What I am going to write about is the response from one of the recipients who has been awarded this prestigious prize.

* * *

Here’s the statement from Olga Tokarczuk, offered after reporters work for nearly a full day trying reach her. She had been off to a small, rural library in Poland for a book talk. A tiny place with fervent supporters of her works, and she didn’t want to cancel even after winning the biggest prize in literature.

I first learned that I had won the Nobel prize in the oddest circumstances—on the motorway, somewhere “In Between,” at a place with no name. I can’t think of a better metaphor to define the world we’re living in today. Nowadays we writers are having to confront ever more improbable challenges, and yet literature is a slow-moving art—the lengthy process of writing makes it difficult to catch the world in the act. I often wonder if it’s still possible to describe the world at all, or if we’re already too helpless in the face of its increasingly fluid shape, the dissolving of fixed points and disappearing values.

I believe in a literature that unites people and shows us how very similar we are, that makes us aware of the fact that we’re all joined together by invisible threads. That tells the story of the world as if it were a living and unified whole, constantly developing before our eyes, in which we are just a small but at the same time powerful part.

This statement is beyond powerful. It if full of so much meaning and could be seen, along with her attending on the day of the announcement what some would consider a minor book event in a nearly forgotten Polish town, as a modern-day statement about the current condition of writing, reading, and books.

* * *

There are three noble realties embedded in her statement.

First: A Nobel Prize winner does not want to disappoint a small town library and her supporters there. She doesn’t mind traveling for hours in the “in between” to meet and talk about her work, books, and literature. Every single writer I know who truly believes in the power of what they do would do the very same. There are some, yes, that would not. Some famous, some not so. I will not name names. But most, I believe, would happily and humbly talk about their work, about their writing, the joy of it and the struggles, and the stories they tell, with three strangers on a park bench, anywhere, anytime. This is not desperation, but rather the love of one’s artistic life. And I love that Olga Tokarczuk—Nobel Laureate—sees it the same way.

Second: “Literature is a slow-moving art.” What a simply beautiful and poignant statement. She is more than right. Literature is not journalism. It is not about the daily, minute-by-minute events of a life, it is not meant to be linked to the Instagram world of here-and-now, but rather to our reflective self, to our “time spent thinking” self.

Third: “I believe in literature that unites people and shows how very similar we are…” I believe in art that disrupts and challenges, but in that same sphere, and even through the same art, can’t we also be pulled together? Can’t we also embrace each other? Can’t writing and reading remind us forever that we are one?

I have never read Olga Tokarczuk but I soon will. And every day I am learning more and more about her. She has captured me.

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