‘I Won the Nobel Prize!’: Svetlana Alexievich’s Translator on the New Nobel Laureate

Photo: Artyom Geodakyan/TASS/Corbis

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature this morning. I underestimated her, and it cost me. Alexievich is a Belarusian journalist whose oral histories have chronicled upheavals in the Soviet and post-Soviet spheres: War’s Unwomanly Face, about the role of Soviet women in World War II; The Last Witnesses, about children in the same war; Grozny Boys, about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; Enchanted With Death, about suicides after the fall of the Soviet Union. For years, Belarus’s government had expelled her from the country, but she returned to live in Minsk in 2011. Her books have sold millions of copies in Russian. Four of them have appeared in English, most recently Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2005. Today I spoke to its translator, Keith Gessen, an old friend of mine who’s also a novelist, founder of n+1, former book critic for New York, and translator of other writing in Russian, including the poet Kirill Medvedev and the fiction writer Lyudmila Petrushevskaya.

Keith Gessen: I won the Nobel Prize! I don’t know if I’m going to be able to hang out with you anymore. Whatever bar we go to, it has to be big enough to fit my Nobel Prize.

Christian Lorentzen: So when we were talking about gambling on the Nobel this week, you told me you thought Alexievich was great, but that you thought the novelist and story writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya had a better shot at it, even though your personal favorite is Petrushevskaya.

KG: I went on that betting site you told me about last night because I wanted to bet on Ulitskaya. If Ulitskaya won, it would really hurt Petrushevskaya’s feelings. And mine. It would mean Petrushevskaya could never win. Like the way Bellow winning made it much more difficult for Roth to win. But Roth is smart. He’s stopped writing so he can stay alive longer, thereby improving his chances. Good move.

Anyway, so I figured that if this happened, I could at least win some money. The reason I thought it would be Ulitskaya is that I was convinced a Russian would win it. There’s no better way to stick it to the Kremlin than to give the prize to someone who hates the Kremlin. And everyone wants to stick it to the Kremlin right now. The Swedes as much or more than most, since they’re neighbors. They’re always talking now about how long their army would last against the Russians. So I figured it would be a Russian. But Ulitskaya wasn’t on there. So I didn’t bet. Little did I realize it would be a Belarusian.

CL: No Belarusian has won before. I thought the bookies had it wrong, and were unduly influenced by disproportionate Russian or Belarusian betting.

KG: They had Doctorow at 50:1. But he’s not even alive.

CL: How did you get the job translating Alexievich?

KG: Chad Post at Dalkey Archive sent me the book and offered to pay $1,500. His idea. Smart idea.

CL: Some people, me included, are surprised to see a writer of oral histories, a form of journalism, win the Nobel. What elevates Alexievich’s work? Or is journalism now a high art?

KG: There are a lot of logical steps in that question. Would you have been surprised if Studs Terkel won a Nobel Prize? That’s the analogy here. He’d have been an excellent candidate for it.

CL:That occurred to me. And yes I would, all due respect to Studs.

KG: Interesting. How about Dylan?

CL: I don’t think he should win.

KG: I agree. But people talk about him winning all the time. That guy at B.U. does anyway.

CL: Christopher Ricks. My feeling is that if you open the door to pop musicians, by 2030 you could be giving the Nobel Prize in Literature to Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber. Maybe they deserve it, but it would make gambling on the prize a lot trickier.

KG: Yeah. But, okay, let’s take this question seriously — if you’re the Nobel committee, and you’re looking around, and you really do feel like it’s important to get someone from the former Soviet Union.

CL: Who are your other options? Vladimir Sorokin?

KG: I think Sorokin, Ulitskaya, Petrushevskaya, and Andrei Bitov, maybe, I think he’s still alive.

CL: He’s 78 and living in St. Petersburg.

KG: Personally, I’m a Petrushevskaya partisan. I think she’s a great, great writer. A genius. But the prize has also often had this social component. And the other thing that’s happened, in the former U.S.S.R., is a total institutional collapse. And the novel is also an institution.

CL: How so, in terms of its collapse?

KG: It takes a long time to write a novel.

CL: At least three weeks, for a writer like Nell Zink.

KG: Ha. But you could argue that Nell spent 20 years collecting ideas for that novel, and just three weeks writing them down. The other thing is, generally, a novelist needs things to kind of stay in place for a while. You need a social world that is fairly consistent. And you also need some mediating institutions — book reviews, prizes committees that actually care about what they’re doing, that sort of thing. A “literary field.”

CL: “A delicate literary ecosystem.”

KG: That collapsed in Russia for pretty much the entirety of the 1990s. (I think you could argue that we are currently living in an age of the collapse of the literary field in the U.S.)

CL: But aren’t social upheavals also spurs to writing great novels?

KG: I think, historically speaking, people write about social upheaval years later. When did Flaubert publish his book about 1848? Many years after 1848, is my point.

CL: Sentimental Education was published in 1869.

KG: Like, Mailer comes home and writes his WWII novel very quickly. But it took Russian writers a bit longer because their whole country was wrecked.

CL: It took years for there to be any 9/11 novels, and now there are so many good ones (and terrible ones).

KG: Yes. People kept asking for them in, like, 2004. Where are the 9/11 novels? But novels don’t work that way. Anyway, I think in the Russian case you have Alexievich who has been doing these interviews for three decades, with people who are really not much represented in Russian or any other kind of literature, and when you put that all together it’s a pretty powerful project.

CL: What sort of message does her victory send to the Kremlin, or to Minsk?

KG: It says, you may have tanks and airplanes, but we give out the Nobel Prize!

CL: Back to the U.S., when you talk about the collapse of the literary field here, are you talking about the internet, and the crisis in magazines and newspapers?

KG: Yes. I could be wrong about that, though. Hard to tell from here.

CL: From Bed-Stuy? One would think that would be the perfect place.

KG: No, it’s too close. You’d have to be farther away from New York. Like in Stockholm maybe.

CL: Well, I was in London for a while. American lit didn’t look so bad off.

KG: That may be true. Okay, I gotta run! Peace!

CL: That’s a different prize.

‘I Won the Nobel Prize!’