Summer 2008

HUMS 639
The Nobel Writers

Karamcheti,Indira

06/23/2008 - 08/01/2008
Tuesday & Thursday 09:30 AM - 12:00 PM

285 Court Street

This class will analyze selected texts from each of the ten most recent winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, examining the internal cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic dynamic of each work, as well as the context of the Nobel Prize itself.

Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) is the subject of an enormous irony: a fortune made in explosives funds the world's most prestigious award for peace, for "fraternity between nations." His will provides that his considerable estate award prizes in five areas: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, as well as for work promoting world peace (economics was added later as a prize category). Since 1901, these prizes have become the most prestigious international recognition of achievement, and they have been earned by a broadly international register of scientists, activists, and authors. Nobel's will explicitly states a desire to transcend national boundaries. He writes that the prizes should be distributed to "those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind," and that it is his "express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he is Scandinavian or not." The prizes for literature have followed Nobel's desire for international distribution, having been given to 104 persons from all continents for writing that is recognized as "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction." Seemingly, Nobel has an implicit belief in a universal humanity and in the possibility of progress towards the harmonious co-existence of different people.

As with all important texts, the problem since 1901 has been one of interpretation. What exactly are the criteria for establishing the "greatest benefit [to] mankind," or the greatest worthiness? How is "the most outstanding" to be gauged and what are the terms of its evaluation? In terms of the award for literature, what does exactly does "an ideal direction" mean? Professor Kjell Espmark, member of the Swedish Academy, writes in The Nobel Prize in Literature, A Study of the Criteria behind the Choices, that, "Indeed, the history of the Literature Prize is in some way a series of attempts to interpret an imprecisely worded will."

Keeping in mind Alfred Nobel's desire for a prize that recognizes a genuinely human achievement that transcends human differences, and recognizing that we don't really know what such an achievement might be, our class will analyze one selected text from each of the ten most recent winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. A capsule description of the three most recent reveals their global provenance and their monumental themes. Doris Lessing, the 2007 winner, born in Iran, longtime resident of South Africa, now in the United Kingdom, has long been recognized for a global perspective that critiques racism, colonialism, and especially the place and role of woman in a landscape riven by the unequal distribution of power. Turkey's Orhan Pamuk examines a world, located as it is at the intersection of Europe and the Middle East, that has historically been the site of the volatile mix of cultures, languages, and commerce. Harold Pinter, raised in World War II's war-torn London, is best known for plays that dramatize a world where the individual moves darkly between others' unknown motives and a menacing politics.

Since they and the other winners of the Nobel Prize for literature write about and are from places as diverse as South Africa, Turkey, Germany, Austria, Portugal, and the United Kingdom, what about these works achieves that standard of being the "most outstanding" internationally? We will examine the individual works in order to understand their own internal cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic dynamics. And we will also read them in relation to two kinds of contexts: first, the microcontext of the Nobel Prize itself. What does the Committee see in them that answers the terms of Alfred Nobel's will? Second, what are the broader socio-historical, political, and cultural contexts within which the work is produced, read, and in which the prize is awarded? In this way, the opportunity to read and enjoy some of the works recognized as the "best" will simultaneously allow us the chance to interrogate the desire for a universal humanity and a universal value.

A syllabus for this course is available at:
Course Syllabus


Indira Karamcheti B.A., M.A., Ph.D. University of California, Santa Barbara) is associate professor of English and American Studies. Her teaching and research interests include postcolonial literature and theory, the literature of the South Asian diaspora, and the writing of ethnic and racial minorities in the U.S. She has written on such authors as Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Simone Schwarz-Bart, and Aime Cesaire. Click here for more information about Indira Karamcheti and click here for more information about her work.


ENROLLMENT INFORMATION

Consent of Instructor Required: No

Format: Seminar

Level: GLSP Credits: 3 Enrollment Limit: 18

Texts to purchase for this course:
John Coetzee, DISGRACE (Penguin), Paperback

Gunter Grass, THE TIN DRUM (Knopf), Paperback

Elfriede Jelinek, THE PIANO TEACHER (Serpent's Tail), Paperback

Imre Kertesz, KADDISH FOR A CHILD NOT BORN (Knopf), Paperback

Doris Lessing, THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK (Harper Collins), Paperback

V.S. Naipaul, A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS (Vintage), Paperback

Orhan Pamuk, MY NAME IS RED (Knopf), Paperback

Harold Pinter, THE HOMECOMING (Grove/Atlantic), Paperback

Jose Saramago, BALTASAR AND BLIMUNDA (Harcourt Trade), Paperback

Gao Xingjian, SOUL MOUNTAIN (Harper Collins), Paperback

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