1. Selma Lagerlöf
Native land: Sweden
Prize year: 1909
Reason: “The lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings.”
Sample: “The stroke of oars was heard among the rushes, and they started up as from sleep. The next moment a flat-bottomed boat appeared, heavy, hollowed out with no skill and with oars as small as sticks. A young girl, who had been picking water-lilies, rowed it. She had dark-brown hair, gathered in great braids, and big dark eyes ; otherwise she was strangely pale. But her paleness toned to pink and not to gray. Her cheeks had no higher color than the rest of her face, the lips had hardly enough. She wore a white linen shirt and a leather belt with a gold buckle. Her skirt was blue with a red hem. She rowed by the outlaws without seeing them. They kept breathlessly still, but not for fear of being seen, but only to be able to really see her. As soon as she had gone they were as if changed from stone images to living beings. Smiling, they looked at one another.” (From Invisible Links, translated by Pauline Bancroft Flach.)
2. Grazia Deledda
Native land: Italy
Prize year: 1926
Reason: “Idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island [Sardinia] and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general.”
Sample: “And yet it was not the actual thought of Giovanna herself that weighed him down, nor yet his lost happiness, nor the misery that a wholly undeserved fate had forced upon him; all these things had long ago so eaten into his soul that they had come to form a part of his very nature, and he had grown almost to forget them, as one forgets the shirt he has on his back. Now his grief fastened upon memories of certain specific objects which had passed out of the setting of his life, and which he could never recover.” (From After the Divorce, translated by Maria Hornor Lansdale.)
3. Sigrid Undset
Native land: Denmark
Prize year: 1928
Reason: “Powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages.”
Sample: “But elsewhere it wasn’t customary for the women of the gentry on the large estates to go up to the pastures. Kristin knew that if she did so, people would be surprised and would gossip about it. In God’s name, then, let them talk. No doubt they were already talking about her and her family.” (From the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, translated by Tiina Nunnally.)
4. Pearl S. Buck
Native land: USA
Prize year: 1938
Reason: “Rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China…and biographical masterpieces.”
Sample: “Wang Lung had his coat off and his back bare, but she worked with her thin garment covering her shoulders and it grew wet and clung to her like skin. Moving together in a perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor. He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods.” (From The Good Earth.)
5. Gabriela Mistral
Native land: Chile
Prize year: 1945
Reason: “Lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.”
Sample: “Beauty shall not be an opiate that puts you to sleep but a strong wine that fires you to action, for if you fail to be a true man or a true woman, you will fail to be an artist.” (From Decalogue of the Artist, translated by Doris Dana.)
6. Nelly Sachs
Native land: Germany
Prize year: 1966
Reason: “Outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel’s destiny with touching strength”
We, the rescued,
The worms of fear still feed on us.
Our constellation is buried in dust.
We, the rescued,
Show us your sun, but gradually.
Lead us from star to star, step by step.
Be gentle when you teach us to live again.
(From Chorus of the Rescued, translated by Michael Roloff.)
7. Nadine Gordimer
Native land: South Africa
Prize year: 1991
Reason: “Through her magnificent epic writing has — in the words of Alfred Nobel — been of very great benefit to humanity.”
Sample: “When it all happened, there were the transformations of myth or religious parable. The bank accountant had been the legendary warning hornbill of African folk-tales, its flitting cries ignored at peril. The yellow bakkie that was bought for fun turned out to be the vehicle: that which bore them away from the gunned shopping malls and the blazing, unsold houses of a depressed market, from the burst mains washing round bodies in their Saturday-morning garb of safari suits, and the heat-guided missiles that struck Boeings carrying those trying to take off from Jan Smuts Airport.” (From July’s People.)
8. Toni Morrison
Native land: USA
Prize year: 1993
Reason: “In novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
Sample: “There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smoothes and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind — wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.” (From Beloved.)
9. Wisława Szymborska
Native land: Poland
Prize year: 1996
Reason: “Poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.”
When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.
(The Three Oddest Words, translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh.)
10. Elfriede Jelinek
Native land: Austria
Prize year: 2004
Reason: “Musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.”
Sample: “Erika pretends that she’s feeling sick from being so close to blood. Something happens that’s humanly possible only after an injury. A few people telephone because others are telephoning too. Lots of people yell at everyone else to pipe down, few people actually do pipe down. They jostle into one another’s lines of vision. They accuse completely innocent people. They act contrary to calls for order. They prove utterly indifferent to renewed entreaties to keep quiet, keep back, keep away from this terrible incident. Two or three students are already opposing the most primitive rules of decency. From various corners, to which the better-bred and the indifferent have retreated, one hears questions about who the culprit might be. Someone speculates that the girl inflicted the injury upon herself in order to attract attention. A second one vehemently protests and circulates the rumor that the deed was done by a jealous boyfriend. A third party says that the motive was probably jealousy, but a jealous girl’s.” (From The Piano Teacher, translated by Joachim Neugroschel.)
Native land: Iran (Persia)
Prize year: 2007
Reason: “Epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.”
Sample: “Two handsome men came first, not young, but only malice could call them middle-aged. One limped. Then two as handsome women of about sixty — but no one would dream of calling them elderly. At a table evidently well-known to them, they deposited bags and wraps and toys, sleek and shining people, as they are who know how to use the sun. They arranged themselves, the women’s brown and silky legs ending in negligent sandals, their competent hands temporarily at rest. Women on one side, men on the other, the little girls fidgeting: six fair heads? Surely they were related? Those had to be the mothers of the men; they had to be their sons. The little girls, clamouring for the beach, which was down a rocky path, were told by their grandmothers, and then their fathers, to behave and play nicely. They squatted and made patterns with fingers and little sticks in the dust. Pretty little girls: so they should be with such good-looking progenitors.” (From The Grandmothers.)
11. Herta Müller
Native land: Romania
Prize year: 2009
Reason: With the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”
Sample: “Something had already happened to me. Something forbidden. It was strange, dirty, shameless, and beautiful. It happened in the park with all the alders, away at the back, beyond the short-grass hills. On the way home, I went to the centre of the park, into the round pavilion where, on public holidays, the orchestras would play. I remained seated for a while. The light pierced the finely-carved wood. I could see the fear of the empty circles, squares, and quadrilaterals - white tendrils with claws linking them. It was the pattern of my aberration, and the pattern of the horror in the face of my mother. In this pavilion I swore to myself: I’m never coming back to this park.” (From Everything I Own I Carry With Me, translated by Donal McLaughlin.)
12. Alice Munro
Native land: Canada
Prize year: 2013
Reason: “Master of the contemporary short story.”
Sample: “He wrote his cold and sulky apologies from Beaulieu, refusing her offer to visit once her flurry was over. He had a lady staying with him, he said, whom he could not possibly present to her. This lady was in distress and needed his attention at the moment. Sonya should make her way back to Sweden, he said; she should be happy where her friends were waiting for her. Her students would have need of her and so would her little daughter. (A jab there, a suggestion familiar to her, of faulty motherhood?) And at the end of his letter one terrible sentence. ‘If I loved you I would have written differently.’” (FromToo Much Happiness.)
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