SWEDISH writer, poet and literary historian Kjell Erik Espmark is one of the 18 members of The Swedish Academy, the body that annually hands out the Nobel Prize in Literature, one of the five prizes established by the will of industrialist Alfred Nobel.
Espmark has played a role in awarding this prestigious prize for over three decades. He also wrote a book about how the academy decides who to honor, a process which has traditionally be shrouded in mystery.
Last week, he was in Shanghai for the hardcover debut of his seven-volume novel series entitled “Time of Forgetfulness.” Originally published in Sweden over a period of 10 years starting in the 1980s, a Chinese-language paperback edition is already available.
During his visit, Espmark, who is well-read in Chinese literature and personally acquainted with numerous Chinese writers and poets, talked to Shanghai Daily about forgetfulness, contemporary Chinese literature and the process behind the naming of each year’s Nobel laureate.
Q: Many authors have written about forgetfulness. Are there different varieties of forgetting?
A: Yes, many writers write about this subject and there are different types of forgetfulness.
For example, Modiano (French novelist and 2014 Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano) also writes about forgetfulness, but in a very personal way, about a person forgetting his life. This kind of forgetting is easier to solve, because when you forget, those around you still remember and they can help you remember as well.
That reminds me of a movie called “Memento” (2000), in which the protagonist, who suffers from memory loss, tries to remember his past with notes, Polaroid photos and even tattoos on his own body.
Milan Kundera also writes about forgetfulness — but it’s different from personal memory loss. He has written about external powers taking over a country and deliberately replacing memories.
V.S. Naipaul fits in this category, too. He wrote about how the English removed the local memory in India and implement their own colonial culture.
Q: What kind do you write about?
A: I write about a third kind of forgetfulness ... the kind where the society forgets.
In the 1980s, I came up with the idea that societies could lose their memory. Today, it has become clear that people are forgetting more and more.
Historian Tony Judt once said that this kind of common forgetfulness is partially due to an overflowing ... of information.
Now people always say, “Oh, that’s already past” or “Oh, that’s history.” And they quickly forget. We only have four hours of memory now. They say if a politician is having a scandal, he only needs to wait for four hours, and then nobody remembers it anymore.
We all realize this problem, but we don’t seem to care too much about it. I want to make you care, I want to force you to care, so I use artistic and comic exaggeration to write about this problem in my novels.
It is very important to remember, and to maintain our cultural roots, history and the foundations of society.
Q: Have the standards for winning a Nobel Prize changed over time?
A: The will (of Alfred Nobel) says the prize should be given to those who have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. In the 1930s this was interpreted to mean authors who were widely read, so they often chose popular writers — like Pearl S. Buck in 1938.
At times, the will was interpreted in terms of religious ideals and family values, so many great writers like Ibsen, Tolstoy and Strindberg never got the prize.
There were always debates between the older and younger members of the academy. For example, in 1930s, the young members really liked Hermann Hesse, but they were overpowered by the older members. After the war, these young members rose in stature. They really cared about innovations, so they honored writers like Hesse, T.S. Eliot and Faulkner.
The selection of William Faulkner in 1949 is one of the most important and best selections ever. When T.S. Eliot received the prize in 1948, he was already quite influential in the English poetry world, and the prize added to his existing fame.
It was completely different for Faulkner. He was little known and few considered him a great literary writer. Through the award, he gained attention from all over the world. He influenced French literature, which in turn influenced Latin American writers like Marquez, who influenced Chinese contemporary writers like Mo Yan. His legacy has been passed on because of the prize.
Q: Can you elaborate on changes at the academy over recent eras? What are members looking for now in a Nobel laureate?
A: It’s not that we’ve exchanged old standards for new ones. We keep adding new considerations that were not there previously. We try to stay up-to-date and relevant.
In the 1970s, members tended to choose lesser-known writers. For example, in 1978, they chose (Isaac Bashevis) Singer, who wrote in Yiddish and was not well-read by those who don’t know the language. After he received the prize, he was translated into more than 50 languages.
From the 1980s onward, the prize has become more international and its reach has spread to regions that the literary world cared little about previously. We’ve given the prize to writers from Egypt, Nigeria and the Caribbean, for example.
In recent years, there has been a trend toward believing that literature ought to serve as a record, a document of our times. You can see this in recipients like Imre Kertesz, who recorded the Holocaust concentration camp experience; or Herta Muller, who documented the Romanian terror. Their literature is a witness to history, a record that reminds people not to forget.
Q: Now that Mo Yan has won the Nobel Prize, will a Chinese poet receive this same honor soon? Are there any poets you are paying special attention to now?
A: I will not talk about specific persons. I’m not allowed to do so anyway.
I tend not to highlight the differences between poetry and novels. To me, they are the same. The seven novels in my series can each be traced back to poems I wrote in the 1970s. Great novelists are always rooted in great poetry traditions. I’ve met and read many good Chinese poets, as well as novelists.
Q: You have met and read the works of many Chinese writers, what do you think about Chinese literature today?
A: The Chinese literary world has developed very well. This is a time of prosperous development for both novels and poetry.
When I first visited China in 1982, I met many great writers and poets, including Ba Jin, Ai Qing, Ding Ling and Lu Wenfu. I was simply amazed by the number of quality writers and works.
Today, there are even more, and many works are available in foreign languages. Even when they are not translated into Swedish, we can read French, German and English translations of contemporary Chinese works.
We have experts who know the Chinese language and culture to help us better understand and evaluate the artistic and literary value of these books.
We once considered Chinese writer Shen Congwen in 1988, who amazingly wrote the history of the country through the history of its costumes.