December 8, 2015
“A time full of hope has been replaced by a time of fear”: Svetlana Alexievich delivers Nobel Lecture in Literature
by Mark Krotov
Yesterday, Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich delivered the annual Nobel Lecture in Literature, at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. Past lectures have provided fascinating windows into prizewinners’ life and work, and the Belarussian laureate’s remarks were no exception.
Even in this rather formal context, Alexievich was, as ever, the oral historian, keenly attuned to the voices of others. Indeed, her remarks read like an extension of her nonfiction; early in her speech, she quoted three of her subjects, who discussed their memories of World War II and the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. The afterlife of both have been two of Alexievich’s great topics.
In what will surely be one of the speech’s most quoted passages, Alexievich described (in Jamey Gambrell’s translation) the centrality of human speech—of what people say and how they say it—to her own work.
Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think—how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don’t appreciate it, we aren’t surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk . . . I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.
A writer who has devoted her life to the struggles of “little people” under Communism and its unstable aftermath, Alexievich was unsparing in her condemnation of the inhumanity of both regimes. “In the end,” she said of Communism, “all that remained was a sea of blood, millions of ruined human lives.”
But she was not much kinder to the Vladimir Putin regime, which, per Alexievich, has privileged power and the projection of strength over democracy or a commitment to human rights and decency:
I will take the liberty of saying that we missed the chance we had in the 1990s. The question was posed: what kind of country should we have? A strong country, or a worthy one where people can live decently? We chose the former—a strong country. Once again we are living in an era of power. Russians are fighting Ukrainians. Their brothers. My father is Belarussian, my mother, Ukrainian. That’s the way it is for many people. Russian planes are bombing Syria . . .
Many commentators have argued that Alexievich’s Nobel marks a tacit condemnation of Putin’s administration, so it seems likely that her blunt political comments will make headlines. But Alexievich’s lecture seems most valuable as a work of empathy not dissimilar from the literary work that won her the award. Alexievich may have been alone on stage, but as always, the emphasis was on the people she has given voice to throughout her career.
Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.