Néstor Amarilla, the Invisible Man, and Joseph Brodsky’s “quiet Swedish joke”


It’s Nobel week, and the discussion of potential winners is becoming feverish.  At the Stanford News Service, we quietly prepare in case someone from the home team gets the honor.  Each day, we take turns waking up at 2 a.m.

If it’s one of our own, we haul ourselves out of bed, call the others, and ambush the unsuspecting winner in the pre-dawn haze, commandeering his cell phone for the duration.  We begin preparing press conferences, writing a profile, arranging interviews, acting as chauffeur and bodyguard — and, of course, feeding food to the new Nobel laureate, his or her family, the media, and ourselves. (You can read an abbreviated description of the chaos in “Dad, some guy is calling from Sweden,”  recalled by Stanford physicist Robert Laughlin‘s longsuffering wife Anita in Reindeer with King Gustaf: What to Expect When Your Spouse Wins the Nobel Prize.)

I will be waking up for the literature and the peace prizes. But I have wondered, during this sleep-deprived week, whether perhaps they should combine the two:  Ted Gioia alerted me to the possibilities, with the  Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

"Kill me, kill me"

Usually, however, I get to roll over and go back to sleep.  Stanford has yet to bag a Nobel in the humanities.  (Berkeley is ahead with 1 — Czesław Miłosz.)  Unless Tobias Wolff or Eavan Boland get lucky, I will only be suffering minorly from sleep deprivation.

Since Ladbrokes’ announcement on Wednesday, it’s interesting that the discussion in the blogosphere so far has obsessed on the surprising emergence of 79-year-old Tomas Tranströmer as a frontrunner, and then gnashed over the usual American lineup of Oates, Updyke, Pynchon, & co. — see the New Yorker blog piece here.

Everyone seems to be overlooking the equally unexpected development at Ladbrokes: the appearance of Adam Zagajewski in the #2 spot — which we discussed here.

Perhaps the world has grown tired of Polish winners — let’s see, there’s Henryk Sienkiewicz in 1905 (Susan Sontag called him “the worst writer in the history of the world” — but I haven’t read him), adyslaw Reymont in 1924, then Czesław Miłosz in 1980, then Wisława Szymborska in 1996 (the last time, incidentally, a poet was awarded — the Nobel “poetry drought,” too, has been making news).  Not bad for a small nation of 40 million Polish-speakers.

My apologies, Señor Amarilla

The Literary Saloon, however, notes in its interesting discussion here:

“Zagajewski’s leap in popularity is obviously what jumps out here — but another eastern European-linked author (and yet another Polish poet)? Still, this is one of the biggest shifts in odds from one year to the next, and worth noting.”

Meanwhile, Tranströmer … I’m not familiar with his oeuvre, but I recall Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky dedicated a poem or two to him.  I can’t find it in my Collected.  Help me out anyone?  Elena?  Lora?

The effort to find it sent me back through my own Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, where I retrieved this nugget from 1975, during a Q&A after a reading in Iowa:

An acquaintance of mine, a Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer, who has been, in my view, real botched up by Robert Bly (Laughter), once said that your attitude toward a translator sort of goes through three stages.  First you trust him, and he kills you.  The second time you don’t trust him and he kills you just the same.  The third kind of attitude involves certain masochistic traits in you.  (Laughter) You say ‘kill me, kill me, kill me …’ And he kills you. (Laughter) It’s not my joke… it’s a quiet Swedish joke.” (Laughter)

Mea culpa:  In my earlier post, I had identified Néstor Amarilla as “she.”  This photo contradicts me.  Given the recent choices of Bjørg-the-Cyborg, I still wonder if they’ll award the darkest of dark horses.  Literary Saloon says “there is no way this very young author can take the prize” — calling him “ridiculously young.”  Probably right.  The site suggests Bella Akhmadulina. as a dark horse alternative.

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6 Responses to “Néstor Amarilla, the Invisible Man, and Joseph Brodsky’s “quiet Swedish joke””

  1. Anita Laughlin Says:

    Thanks for mentioning my book! The beginning of October is the time of Nobel announcements and believe it or not, Bob and our family
    still (12 years later) get that knot in our throats about the announcements. When you consider the odds of winning it at all, it is really a stunning
    achievement…and Stanford is packed with laureates!
    Anita Laughlin

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, Anita! Hope the season brings a boost to your book sales — it’s topical every year this time. Jack Hubbard remembers you fondly!

  3. Elena Danielson Says:

    In “How to Read a Book,” Brodsky recommends three Swedish poets: Gunnar Ekelof, Harry Martinson , Tomas Transtromer.

  4. Tweets that mention The Book Haven » Blog Archive » Néstor Amarilla, the Invisible Man, and Joseph Brodsky’s “quiet Swedish joke” -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Erika Kotite, Nancy Cleary. Nancy Cleary said: And… Wyatt-MacKenzie on Stanford's BookHaven this weekend… gotta love it!!!! It's Nobel Week. REINDEER WITH GUSTAF: http://bit.ly/d3xNh8 […]

  5. Elena Danielson Says:

    I didn’t realize Stanford hasn’t yet received a Nobel in the humanities….must fix this…

  6. Roseanne Sullivan Says:

    I love that “quiet Swedish joke” about the relationship between the poet and his translator. But it’s not much of a joke, I imagine, when it’s your own well-raised poems that are murdered. Robert Bly struck out, according to Brodsky. Interesting. I knew Bly in Minnesota and heard him read his poetry with a “sense of place.” II was studying poetry writing with Bly’s friend Thomas McGrath. I’m curious about what the world at large thinks of him.