The making of a Nobel Laureate in Literature
Gao Xingjian analysis of literature
and his contributions

Junie L. Sinson
Contributing Editor
International Scene


On December 10, 2000, Gao Xingjian (Gow-Jayjun) received the Nobel Prize in Literature. When receiving the award, he then delivered an address in which he discussed literature, writing, and his style of communication. At that ceremony, Gäoran Malmquist presented Gao Xingjian to the King of Sweden and commented on the work of Gao. During the March, 2002, interview, which I had with Gäoran Malmquist, I had the opportunity of comparing the Malmquist and Gao speeches and seeking a synthesis between their positions.

Gao began his address by acknowledging a writer as an ordinary person who is perhaps more sensitive than the rest of us. He emphasized that literature must be the voice of the individual and not the collective force of an institution or a group.

An example to Gao of collective interference with literature and its creators occurred in China during the Cultural Revolution. He witnessed the revolutionary passing of “death sentences” on literature and various writers. Gao listed several former laureates, including Thomas Mann and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who, like himself, had the options of fleeing or remaining silent. Their literature transcended ideology, national boundaries, and addressed “the dilemmas of human existence.”

Gao stated that he began to write Soul Mountain to dispel his own inner loneliness — that “talking to oneself” is the point from which all literature starts. Language in literature, although secondary to the author’s internal quest, is, according to Gao, the “crystalization of human civilization.” He described the author’s aesthetic judgments as having “universally recognized standards.” This interviewer suggested to Gäoran Malmquist that that reference to “standards” perhaps could be expanded from “recognized universal standards” in form to universal standards in values. That attempted leap of logic was quickly answered by Gäoran Malmquist: “It’s hard to believe that there could be any ‘recognized universal standards.’” Malmquist continued: “In one section of Soul Mountain, there is a discussion with an imaginary literary critic. The critic says, ‘this is not a novel you are writing. It doesn’t look like a novel at all.’”

Malmquist, in having Gao place substance over form or standards, states that, to him, “Telling the truth is the most important thing. You must be true. You must not write anything but the truth.” One could argue that Gao disagrees with Malmquist when Gao states: “...whether or not the writer confronts truth is not just an issue of creative methodology. It is closely linked to his attitude toward writing...For the writer, truth in literature approximates ethics; it is the ultimate ethics of literature.”

Gao emphasized in his address the importance of transmitting emotions to the reader. He stated that a poetic feeling does not merely result from communicating the experience of feelings, such as sorrow and beauty. Gao concluded that an aesthetic based on emotion does not become outdated no matter what are the changes in marketplace literature or marketplace art.

Gao further reported that all societies must be able to accommodate non-utilitarian literature. This literature may be created without a quest for compensation. It is a tragedy not to accommodate that literary product. The innovative structural aspect of Gao’s writing is the fixing of speaker-pronouns as the base for communicating perceptions and the launching of narrative patterns. Gao stated: “I use pronouns instead of the usual characters and also use the pronouns ‘I,’ ‘you,’ and ‘he’ to tell about or focus on the protagonist. The portrayal of the one character by using different pronouns creates a sense of distance.” He also used that device in his plays to provide actors with broader psychological spaces.

Gäoran Malmquist expanded on these thoughts in his interview:

JLS: What is the multi-person narrative of Gao?

GM: In his short stories and dramas, he insists on multi-personalities. The actors present themselves in different degrees. I believe it is called “encrendo.” The actor may refer to himself as “I.” The “he” has to detach himself from the closeness of the ‘I” and refer to himself as “you.” At the third level of the “encrendo,” one refers to yourself as “he” or “she.”

JLS: In your presentation of Gao, you spoke of “the new ground in structure” and “the psychological foundation.” Is this different than a linear story?

GM: Oh yes, yes, yes. You have an integration of the straight narrative. What you have is much more complex than the normal linear Chinese novel.

JLS: Are Chinese novels today employing western techniques?

GM: Since the mid-1980s, novels of China use western techniques.

JLS: Does that include “time inversions?”

GM: Yes.

JLS: You described Gao as addressing the “existential dilemma,” which is the solitude of the individual.

GM: That is important. That is important. Every human being has a need to be alone and to be independent. To be yourself.

JLS: Yourself?

GM: To be responsible only to yourself. That is the very great need for any human being. At the same time, there is a longing for being comforted. There is a longing for a keen, intensive friendship. There is a longing for love. There is a longing for that which the “other” can give to you — that which you cannot provide for yourself. The “other” can provide it for you, love, friendship, comfort. There is the firm knowledge of this reliance on the “other.” This reliance on friendship or love encroaches upon your freedom.

JLS: Freedom.

GM: Yes, freedom. Craving for freedom, craving for loneliness. I think every human being is connected to this great dilemma.

JLS: The “other” can be friends who impact us with love. Could it also be the family, the church, the government?

GM: Yes, yes, yes.

JLS: Those could be a source of comfort, but they can also be...

GM: A threat.

JLS: Wasn’t that what Nietzsche was suggesting in Thus Spoke Zarathustra?

GM: Yes.

JLS: Would Gao be familiar with Nietzsche?

GM: Oh yes, he would be.

Malmquist repeatedly emphasized that he did not believe that the Swedish Academy any longer felt constraint when selecting a Nobel Laureate in Literature by the precise language of Alfred Nobel’s will. That included the Alfred Nobel will provision that the chosen author must contribute in an “idealistic direction.”

Malmquist has declared that Gao is an individual who writes for himself and lives for himself. Unlike such Nobel Laureates as Nordine Gordimer, Gunther Grass or Kenza-buro Gao does not appear to see that his mission is to direct or save society.

» Part III
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