The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993
Speech by Professor Sture Allén,
Permanent Secretary of the Swedish
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Nobel Prize awarded by the Swedish Academy is, as we know, a literary prize. This year it has been granted to Toni Morrison, making her the ninetieth Nobel Laureate in Literature.
In her volume of essays, Playing in the Dark, Miss Morrison lucidly pictures the insights that she has gained, as an author and a reader in her native country: "It is as if I had been looking at a fishbowl - the glide and flick of the golden scales, the green tip, the bolt of white careening back from the gills; the castles at the bottom, surrounded by pebbles and tiny, intricate fronds of green; the barely disturbed water, the flecks of waste and food, the tranquil bubbles travelling to the surface - and suddenly I saw the bowl, the structure that transparently (and invisibly) permits the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world." In other words, she regards the African presence in her country as a vital but unarticulated prerequisite for the fulfilment of the American dream. Similarly, she sees whiteness in literature as having blackness as its constant companion, the racial other as its shadow.
In her depictions of the world of the black people, in life as in legend, Toni Morrison has given the Afro-American people their history back, piece by piece. In this perspective, her work is uncommonly consonant. At the same time, it is richly variegated. The reader derives vast pleasure from her superb narrative technique, shifting from novel to novel and marked by original development, although it is related to Faulkner and to the Latin American tradition. Toni Morrison's novels invite the reader to partake at many levels, and at varying degrees of complexity. Still, the most enduring impression they leave is of empathy, compassion with one's fellow human beings.
Milkman Dead, the protagonist of Song of Solomon, reflects one of the basic themes of Miss Morrison's novels, in his quest for self. Milkman's paternal grandfather was a liberated slave. When he was registering his freedom, he responded to a question about his father with the word "Dead", thus acquiring his macabre surname from the drunken official who asked. His family was prepared to accept this name: "It was new and would wipe out the past. Wipe it all out." The Solomon whose name occurs in the title of the novel, Milkman's peculiar southern forefather, was to be found even in the song that went with children's games. The intensity of his inner life had carried him through the air back to the Africa of his origins. Solomon's rapture was ultimately Milkman's as well.
Motifs in space and time continue to be interwoven in Beloved. Paradoxically, the combination of realism and folklore enhances the novel's credibility. In the world which the female protagonist, Sethe, inhabits, one does not possess one's own body. There is tremendous power in Toni Morrison's description of Sethe's act of releasing her child, Beloved, from the destiny she imagines her facing, and of the consequences of this act for her own life, in which Beloved's double personifies the burden of Sethe's guilt.
In her latest novel, Jazz, Toni Morrison's approach is similar to the style in which jazz is performed. The opening lines of the novel state its theme, the lives of a number of people in Harlem in the 1920s. In the course of the novel we perceive a first-person narrator, varying, supplementing and intensifying the story. The final picture is a highly composite image of events, characters and atmospheres, mediated in sensual language with a deep inherent sense of musicality. Toni Morrison's way of addressing her reader has a compelling lustre, in a poetic direction.
When she was very young, her family's landlord set fire to the house in which they lived when her parents fell behind with the rent. And while they were in it. Her family reacted to this absurd form of crudeness, monumental crudeness, not with resignation but with laughter. This, says Toni Morrison, is how you can distance yourself from the act and take your life back. You take your integrity back.
In great minds, gravity and humour are close neighbours. This is reflected in everything Toni Morrison has written, and evidenced in her own summary: "My project rises from delight, not disappointment."
Dear Miss Morrison,
I have just told the audience that, in your own words, your project rises from delight, not disappointment. As you disclose fundamental aspects of hidden reality, you make gravity and humour abide side by side in your remarkable work, with its verbal music. It is my privilege and pleasure, on behalf of the Swedish Academy, to convey to you our warmest congratulations on the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1993, and to invite you to receive the Prize from the hands of His Majesty the King.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1991-1995, Editor Sture AllÚn, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1993