Prizes as Hysterical Love-Making

Jonathan Littell on winning (g, my translation) the 2006 Prix Goncourt for his novel Les Bienveillantes:

You received the Prix Goncourt.

Unfortunately.  I did everything I could to prevent that.

But you did not accept it.

I didn’t want it.

Why not? Why reject a prize that so many of your colleagues yearn for?

I don’t think prizes have anything to do with literature.  They have to do with marketing, not literature.  I don’t like that.

But it’s a prestigious prize, well-endowed.  You could live well in Barcelona with that money.

I came to Barcelona before the prize.  The money is nice, but I don’t like the competition, all this crap.  People who are interested in that care more about their social status than art.

Robert Musil, on prize ceremonies in general:

We have a history of great men, and we regard it as an institution that belongs to us, just like prisons or the army; having it means we have to have people to put into it.  And so, with a certain automatism inherent in such social needs, we always pick the next in line and shower him with the honors ripe to be handed out.  But this veneration is not quite sincere; at its base lies the gaping, generally accepted conviction that there is really not a single person who deserves it, and it is hard to tell whether the mouth opens to acclaim someone or to yawn.  To call a man a genius nowadays, with the unspoken gloss that there is really no longer any such thing, smacks of some cult of the dead, something like hysterical love making a great to-do for no other reason than that there is no real feeling present.

The Man without Qualities, Vol I, p. 322 (Wilkins / Pike translation).

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3 thoughts on “Prizes as Hysterical Love-Making

  1. Dunno. I didn’t read Littell’s tome yet. From what I picked up in German Feuilleton, it seems to have a whiff both of Thor Kunkel’s Endstufe and Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty, with better wording, including some really difficult ones, that you have to look up. So, humble and industrious he is, Mr Littell. Then again, both Schopenhauer and Gracián might be that tad suspicious of his sincerity – you know how they are were. Wouldn’t Constanţa or somewhere else back of beyond have been a better fit to nurse his ennui, than Barcelona, Europe’s home of the young and pretty, of all places?

  2. …and boy, doesn’t Mr Littel’s unpretentiousness allows to let off a fine unpretentious quote. I like that. That said, Musil’s musings, lucid and cogent, remind me to finally read his masterpiece, so thank you for the reminder, really.

  3. Littell’s not trying to be unpretentious. Nobody who spends countless thousands of hours writing a book will ever honestly say that they don’t want or deserve recognition. I think Littell means exactly what he says: that he considers literary prizes generally useless. Clearly, as a guide to which books are worth reading, they’re no better than a roll of the dice. A short look at former winners of the Prix Goncourt, or the Goethe Prize — and even (perhaps especially) the Nobel Prize for Literature — leave little doubt about that.

    There’s nothing particularly original about any of these observations. Attacking the profusion of literary prizes, and raising suspicions about why they’re awarded, is a favorite pastime of cultural critics. But all of these spot-on, damning assaults haven’t stopped literary prizes from being treated with ludicrously overblown respect, especially in Europe. That should give you an idea what most of them really exist for…

    As to Musil, by all means read The Man Without Qualities. If you’re intimidated by the printed version, I recommend the unabridged audiobook that http://www.zweitausendeins.de offers on four inexpensive MP3-cds. Just visit their website and search for “Robert Musil”.

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