Nobel Prize 2015: Alexievich's Brave New Literary World

on Thursday, October 8, 2015
As we all scramble to read up on Svetlana Aleksijevitj (or, as we now seem to be spelling it, Alexievich), it's worth considering the wider implications of her win. Her's has not been a name that has come up too often in the past. Personally, I'd never even heard of her three days ago. Still she stood above many of the perennial faves - Murakami (never gonna win), Roth (nope), Adunis (long-time bridesmaid), Dylan (you're totally pranking me, right?) - on the bookmakers' tables.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe my reading is so insular that I've become unaware of an entire literary world beyond my own bookshelf. The one thing I never considered, the one that had me pretty much dismissing Alexievich out of hand (once I knew who she was), is that journalism might be considered "literature" for the purposes of the prize. In the past, it has almost always gone to a novelist or poet. Sure, they might engage in criticism or journalism in their spare time, but it is never the essence of their literary output. I stand to be corrected (and I'm guessing I will be), but the last non-fiction laureate was Winston Churchill. And who the hell actually considers him a REAL Nobel literary laureate anyway? Now with Alexievich's win, the field has been cracked wide open.

The Nobel Committee, in their now typically pithy citation, pointed to "her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time." Fancy. Not that it helps us know anything about what she does. Their bibliographical note is a little more enlightening:

"For many years, she collected materials for her first book U vojny ne ženskoe lico (1985; War’s Unwomanly Face, 1988), which is based on interviews with hundreds of women who participated in the Second World War. This work is the first in Alexievich’s grand cycle of books, “Voices of Utopia”, where life in the Soviet Union is depicted from the perspective of the individual.
By means of her extraordinary method – a carefully composed collage of human voices – Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era. The consequences of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl 1986 is the topic of Černobyl’skaja molitva (1997; Voices from ChernobylChronicle of the Future, 1999). Cinkovye mal’čiki (1990; Zinky Boys – Soviet voices from a forgotten war, 1992) is a portrayal of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan 1979–89, and her work Vremja second chènd (2013; “Second-hand Time: The Demise of the Red (Wo)man”) is the latest in “Voices of Utopia”. Another early book that also belongs in this lifelong project is Poslednie svideteli (1985; “Last witnesses”)."

Seems there is a lot of interesting material for me to trawl through over the coming weeks if I can tear myself away from the world of fiction. Thankfully, her oeuvre seems right up my alley. Either way, I'm putting 2015 down as a watershed year for the prize. At last it is recognising a form that speaks not from behind a creative veil but, rather, straight from the shit-stained troughs of our fucked up world. And that, dear LitNerds, is a big win.


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