Annually, both funny and shameful, and I think we win it every year – none of the literary eds knows what to say about the Nobel Prizewinner for Literature (unless they’re Brit or American). Robert McCrum, ex-Observer lit ed and still general panjandrum, admits on a Guardian podcast that he’s ‘never read a word she’s written’, and has been ‘frantically searching the web to find out things’. He says this from the comfort of knowing that he’s not alone.
Which is no excuse. For starters, Michael Hofmann’s translation of Herta Muller’s The Land of Green Plums (‘currently unavailable’ on amazon, hah) won the 1998 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, which is arguably the major literary award in these English-speaking isles.
Being lazy by habit and temperament myself, I’m in no position to opinionate on Herta Muller. But I do think that the EU Lisbon Treaty, another trans-national thing which seems to embarrass anyone in a position of authority, should include a clause to this basic effect: that if you have no idea what’s going on in writing and publishing in the nearby European countries at the very least, that if you have no contacts or indeed any interest out there, you should be disqualified from any position of national literary influence (e.g., lit ed of a national newspaper, or senior editor at a mainstream publisher).
My friend Alan D shames me: if you are seriously interested in any writer writing in one of the major European languages, he tells me, then read them in the language they write in. It’s not difficult. He sends me obscure works of Stendhal in French editions. Recently he was learning Chinese; his hallway was decorated with gorgeous Chinese script. Sack McCrum and give Alan a decent wage.
(I’m writing this after visiting this afternoon West End Lane Books, 277 West End Lane, London NW6. They stock, their website claims, ‘over 1,000 imported titles’, and their poetry shelves in particular are brilliant. Liberating.)