The making of a Nobel Laureate in Literature
Critiquing and defending the Nobel Prize in Literature

Junie L. Sinson
Contributing Editor
International Scene


ecrecy exists when addressing the thinking and direction of the Swedish Academy when it is seeking and selecting a Nobel Laureate in literature. Although reluctant to speak of future candidates, Gäoran Malmquist was not reluctant to discuss, in general, Chinese literature.

JLS: Would it be correct to say that there exist three types of Chinese literature. One would be called the literature of the mainland; the second, you would call the literature of the expatriate; and the third, the literature of Taiwan. Is that fair or not?

GM: I prefer to talk about literature written in Chinese — literature written in the Chinese language. There was a time when mainland literature was quite distinct from Taiwanese literature. They had been impacted by the same political revolution in 1919. In 1916-18, the world had seen a literary revolution. Throughout the world, it impacted the short story, the novel and poetry. After 1949, there was but one type of writing in China. But then there came the Cultural Revolution and control on the mainland until the 1970s. China had survived political and cultural killing.

JLS: Was it the writing style of Joyce that began to impact Chinese literature?

GM: I believe the arrival of the theater of the absurd had great influence on Chinese literature. It impacted Taiwan long before it reached the mainland. You wouldn’t believe it, but the ideas of Freud did not reach the mainland until the late 1970s.

From that background, who emerged as significant contributors to Chinese literature? Professor Liu Haiping, in his interview, was helpful in identifying authors on or out of the mainland who are recognized as major Chinese literary contributors. Li Rui was described as a first class mainland writer of short stories. A Chinese author who has earned international recognition is Mo Yan. His western literary influence evolved from the writing of the Nobel Laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and his One Hundred Years of Solitude. Late in the 1980s, his second book, Red Sorghum, obtained for him an international reputation when it was made into a movie.

An interesting woman writer, Wang Angi, was also singled out by Professor Liu Haiping. She is a representative Chinese writer who had her training disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. In 1971, at the age of 17, she had been exiled from Shanghai to northern Anhui. After the Cultural Revolution, she returned to Shanghai and, by the age of 26, she had become a member of the Chinese Association of Writers. After studying at the University of Iowa, International Writing Program in 1983, her writing moved from socialist realism toward psychological exploration. An example of that was her “Love Trilogy” which explore female sexuality and the institution of marriage.

Gäoran Malmquist, in addition to having translated Gao Xingjian, has carefully followed Li Rui and Bei Dao. Professor Malmquist, like Professor Liu, was laudatory of the writing of Li Rui and has described as superb his style, his prose, and his use of language.

Those who love books, their message, their form, and the beauty of both often reflect on art and its creation. John Dewey, in his book, What is Art, described art as an experience. One is led to ponder for whom is it an experience?

Is it for the author, the designer, the reader, the observer?

Can art be created by anyone, or does art’s excellence flow only from the gifted, those with genius, or those with a special talent? Professor Liu Haiping of Nanjing University opined, in the meeting this writer had with him, that you could not, in any literature, learn to be a great writer without first possessing a special gift. He confirmed that anyone could improve his craft; but that a ceiling existed for those without a special gift or genius.

The most interesting dialogue I have ever had with a special person who possessed extraordinary sensitivity was contained in my chat with Gäoran Malmquist in March of 2002.

JLS: In your presentation of Gao Xingjian at his Nobel Award Ceremony, you did not go into the aesthetic aspect of writing. Are you negative as to special creativity?

GM: No, no, no. On the contrary, I have very strong views on that. I believe there are even very, very strong aesthetic moments and very deep aesthetic enjoyment in research. When you solve a problem in research, it may be a problem that may seem very dull for others. But for the researcher, it can be a paradigm. It could be a problem of structure in Chinese syntax. Suddenly, you see all the pieces fall together in beautiful and symmetric ways. It’s strange, all phonological systems are symmetric. There is a symmetrical beauty, and that, to me is the beauty of that symmetry. It gives me the same high feeling of “aesthetic enjoyment” as if I heard the most magnificent piece of music or saw a most beautiful object. I think truth is beauty. I believe what is true is beautiful.

JLS: Is there a link between genius and sensitivity?

GM: It is also rather scary.

JLS: Can you teach it?

GM: You can’t teach it. It is also quite scary.

JLS: What is there to be afraid of?

GM: The feeling is very intense. “Aesthetic“ enjoyment is too weak a description. This intensity, I call a “high.”

JLS: Are you talking about an emotional high?

GM: You see, it is accompanied by something I can only describe as a “death wish.” You come to a point where you experience something so strongly that you know there is nothing to beat it. Nothing to beat it. It is kind of a combination. That combination is scary because it comes very close to death. You come very close to death.

JLS: That’s interesting.

GM: You know, sometimes, when I see or when I read and I’m really very passionate to it, I have this very strange urge to blind myself. You see, to thrust the pen into your eyes.

JLS: Is it your perception of truth and perfection?

GM: That is it. There can be no more.

JLS: Have you ever heard anyone else articulate that feeling?

GM: No. But I did mention it to a colleague of mine in the Academy. I thought it was something that most people felt. He said “no.” He said he never heard that. He thought it was very strange that I had this thought. One is compelled to inquire if a less sensitive scholar could have discovered Gao Xingjian.

The procedure outlined in this article might well be described as the “Making of a Nobel Laureate.” The prize was the result of the extraordinary dream of Alfred Nobel. The recipient of the prize in 2000 was the extraordinary literary figure, Gao Xingjian. The events in China, which created the environment and impacted Gao’s writing, were historically extraordinary. The scholarship and sensitivity of Gäoran Malmquist, which led to Gao’s discovery, also appears to have been extraordinary. It seems obvious that Alfred Nobel would have been most proud of the process and its results.

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