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Keillor writes: "I am off lingonberries for the time being and Volvos and flat white furniture from Ikea. No meatballs, thank you."

The novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. (photo: Francesco Guidicini/The Times)
The novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. (photo: Francesco Guidicini/The Times)

Welcome to the Abyss

By Garrison Keillor, The Washington Post

12 October 17


am off lingonberries for the time being and Volvos and flat white furniture from Ikea. No meatballs, thank you. Once again the humorless Swedes have chosen a writer of migraines for the Nobel Prize in literature, an author of twilight meditations on time and memory and mortality and cold toast by loners looking at bad wallpaper. It’s not a prize for literature, it’s a prize for nihilism. The Swedes said he’s like Jane Austen combined with Kafka with some of Proust, three other writers you’d never invite to a party. Well, at least they didn’t give it to Joni Mitchell.

That Swedes give out the Nobel is like the Swiss deciding the Cy Young Award. We’re talking tone-deaf, people. The words “Swedish” and “comedy” seldom appear in the same sentence except as a joke. All the Swedes with a sense of humor came to America and so what the Nobel judges recognize is bleak, cramped, emotionally stunted, enigmatic, pretentious. Millions of people around the world understand the concept of reading books for pleasure, but the Swedes think of it as a form of colonoscopy. If they gave a Nobel Prize for food, they’d give it to quinoa. Of course all the book critics applauded the choice of Kazuo Ishiguro: Praising the dull and deadly is a time-tested way to demonstrate intellectual superiority. It’s like taking a ski vacation in North Dakota: It sets you apart from the crowd. And comedy is so utterly adolescent.

“He did not know where he was. It was midnight and the train seemed to be moving, he couldn’t be sure. There were voices nearby, or maybe he was only imagining them. He could smell creosote. He knew creosote from his years in Albertbad. He had been shipped there for crimes against the Directorate and had spent years driving truckloads of creosote to the canyon and dumping them in. Ever since then, his tea had tasted of creosote, his eggs, his morning muffin.”

Do not — I repeat, Do Not — begin with a paragraph like this:

“She sat at the table in the far corner of the cafe, waiting for him, and flashed a brilliant smile as he approached. He noticed the balloon on the cushion of the chair opposite her. A large semi-inflated orange balloon. Her eyes glittered, she was delighted to see him, and suddenly he knew what he needed to do. He pretended not to notice the balloon. He walked to the chair, took her pale hand and kissed it, sat down firmly and from beneath came a loud bubbly fluttery exclamation of flatulence, and from her came peals of laughter, like bells on Christmas morning. And that was where it all began. From that decision to sit on it.”

Meanwhile, it is a beautiful October day and I’m sitting in the kitchen, enjoying a hearty licorice tea and looking at my lovely wife. I don’t recall anyone doing anything like that in Mr. Ishiguro’s books. As the Nobel committee said, he “has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Beauty is an illusion, as are licorice tea and marriage and, of course, the kitchen, which sits on the edge of a cliff looking down at nothingness 100 miles deep.

The man who should’ve won the prize goes by the name Philip Roth and what disqualifies him are the many rich descriptive passages revealing a love of the physical world and the elements of storytelling such as conversation, some of which is, since the speakers are American, way too funny, way too connected to the world.

In their long-standing campaign against comedy, the Swedish Academy is doing almost as much damage as old man Nobel did with his hard work developing better rockets, cannon and explosives. They are leading young writers to aspire to vacuity. I say, let the Swedes give the prize for urban planning. Let the Jews give the Nobel Prize. They know from literature. Compare a list of great Jewish writers and a list of great Swedish writers. I rest my case. Swedish literature is made up of small dark stories in which people are very silent and then it starts snowing and a dog barks and someone reaches for the aquavit.

Poor Ishiguro. A week ago he was a writer struggling to put himself on paper and now he’s become a granite statue in the park, pigeons sitting on his shoulders. Write something funny, Ish. Astonish us. Go to the Nobel banquet in Stockholm in December and sit down on the balloon. your social media marketing partner


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+2 # kyzipster 2017-10-12 14:45
I guess I'm lowbrow, I've watched John Waters' greatest hits probably ten times each. Fellini movies, once.
+8 # davehaze 2017-10-13 08:57
John Waters and Federico Fellini are equally brilliant and lowbrow. I'm sure they would have gotten along fine with each other and Jane Austin.
+22 # librarian1984 2017-10-12 15:54
Keillor is a fool if he wouldn't invite Jane Austen to a party.
+14 # Wise woman 2017-10-12 15:58
Hey, Garrison, you're talking about my ancestors here - you know the peaceful ones from northern Europe where you recently vacationed nearby. In spite of what old man Noble invented, the Swedes and most all of Scandinavia are committed to world peace and environmentalis m. They're miles away from us when it comes to health care, education and equality for all. I don't know about those that escaped to the hinterlands, but those that stopped in NY, had a pretty good sense of humor. Maybe because it wasn't so bleak. The only time I ever saw the Aquavit come out was at Christmas and New Years along with the creamed herring and whitefish. And the most delicious butter cookies you ever tasted. Oh yeah, there were some lingonberries too :)). I do agree with you, however, regarding Jewish novelists. I will add musicians and comics to that list. Still, if you enjoy a good Swedish crime story, I highly recommend Henning Mankell. You won't be disappointed.
+1 # NAVYVET 2017-10-15 06:22
I was in college when the "existentialist " novels were pouring out of France--not a nation known for dourness, although some of them seemed more like a wet dishcloth than fiction and I quickly returned to science-fiction.

There's humor in Henning Mankell's Wallender novels--wry humor, suitable to the stories. Every time he tells us about Wallander's grumpy old dad painting the same oil painting endlessly (the same landscape, often featuring a grouse), how can anyone help but break into a grin? For belly laughs, though, I prefer Jewish writers--especi ally Joe Heller of "Catch 22" fame,and its sequel, "Closing Time"--the only witty end-of-the-worl d novel I've ever read, which is strange since I've read at least 2 or 3 sci-fi novels a week from age 13 to age 81, but can't recall any that were so full of humor. When Yossarian appears the hilarity gets manic, and even Heller's apocalypse is great dark humor.

Although I come close to adoration of the comedy of Terry Pratchett and Italo Calvino, I don't demand humor--just a good story well told. My all-time favorite novel is "War and Peace", which I love for its beautifully developed protagonists, not for its occasional humor--like the first chapter, with Pierre, drunk as a skunk, standing on a window ledge. It's a scene that gets funnier with each re-reading, but if he'd fallen, "War and Peace" wouldn't be one of the longest novels, but a very short one.
+1 # Texas Aggie 2017-10-12 23:28
Mankell is good and so is Jonas Jonasson. Try Stieg Larsson as well.

But by and large, the kind of thing that makes a Swede laugh are things like a guy slipping on the ice and breaking his neck. Also Ole and Sven jokes. Not exactly what one would call humorous.
+1 # elkingo 2017-10-13 01:57
Garry is spot on again. That writing is childish crap. And I'll bet the Swedes made the award based on its mawkish downer cast, like bad high school writing. And certainly not on the basis of style,elegance, spiritual evocation etc. But one great thing has been accomplished by this. At last the venerable 'whoopee cushion' has made it into "literature".
+2 # Gordon Berry 2017-10-13 05:56
Hello, Garrison - I guess i am from northern europe too - Yorkshire. and I love your comedic tragic stories in which very little really happens except for minnesotan/luth eran human interactions.
I agree that many swedes have a good time only after a few beers (having lived there myself awhile)..But your tone in this latest writing bursts my balloon of admiration.
+7 # 2017-10-13 05:56
Come on Garrison. Watch a Swedish film like Lasse Aberg's Repmånad. And if lots of laughter and smiles is a sign of happiness, I'd rather spend my time in Stockholm or Vetlanda than in contemporary Washington or Hollywood.
+7 # Dale 2017-10-13 06:43
Keillor had a great humorous program about Swedes in Minnesota for many years. The Nobel Committee though is entirely lacking in humor, except the really perseve kind, like giving Warrior Barack Obama a peace prize.
+8 # punch 2017-10-13 09:08
It is of course completely idiotic to critique the humor of a people whose language you don't understand. I understand American English and find a lot of US humor and comedians very funny - perhaps Louis CK being the greatest. Since I'm Norwegian I also understand Swedish and know a lot about the cultural context of Swedish comedy. And Swedish comedy and comedians are in many way even better than their US counterparts. Yes, I've even gone to live standup shows in Sweden.

Criticize the Nobel committee and their choices if you want, criticize the author if you want. But don't criticize something you have never once experienced. I won't be judging any Czech comedy any time soon either.
+1 # Thinking 2017-10-13 10:23
Wow -- what a great review! In the choice of joy or depression, Keillor picks celebrating and extending joy even in the ordinary details of life.
+7 # nimal 2017-10-13 14:32
Dear Mr. Keillor:

Last year an American Poetic Comedian Singer won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This prize is an opinion. Not the best nor worst one. Yours is an interesting, American view, akin to, we want it, we have more military power - are funnier, we can buy it, and that, we are better, give it to us! You cannot help it but be that way. Maybe you can change.

There are other prizes that American's win. Like crooked boxing fights, you bought it you owned it. Very funny, to Americans. For others, Ishiguro is funny, sad, frightening, even profound.. and seriously, however funny you are, the rest of the world does not like us (Americans) as they used to, including the Swedes. No prizes for us this year, and no Money for UNESCO then? Garrison, the Lake, the Lake is calling.

+5 # SusanT136 2017-10-14 07:57
"The Swedes said he’s like Jane Austen combined with Kafka with some of Proust, three other writers you’d never invite to a party. Well, at least they didn’t give it to Joni Mitchell."

Hey, I'd be psyched to invite Joni Mitchell to a party anyday.
+1 # manuelzavala 2017-10-14 20:48
Not that Dylan should have got the Nobel or not but if he deserved it than I think Joni does too. Just saying'
0 # keenon the truth 2017-10-15 00:27
I have only read two Ishiguro novels, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go , and found them immensely moving. I respectfully suggest that the American tendency to literalness means they often miss the subtleties and nuances in British writing.
0 # Sir Morien 2017-10-17 07:43
Judgmentalism and ethnocentric prejudices, all wrapped up in American pride and arrogance, dusted twice with sardonic sarcasm. The ligonberries have soured and let's have this Minnesota woe be gone! (I doubt that such prolific bias will net you a candidacy you for that prestigious Peace Prize given by these same sorrowful "Swedes", btw.)

The world is far larger than this parochial lens, attempting to seduce Jewish intellectuals into a shared disdain for an award that comes--and goes--in cycles. U.S. opinion is has become an ever-shrinking ellipse to the world community's locus. No longer will the world be admiring the American preponderance of men such as this, who believe that their own wilted wishes and laked longings ought to last forever.

The cruel irony of this piece is that it derives from the very Scandinavian source--albeit generationally pickled--of its American hubris, which it attempts to so cruelly criticize! Your day has long been done, Master Garrison. It is, itself, a negation of meaningful aspects of life beyond Americana: quintessential nihilism!

The American Century has ended. Please join us in the new millennium, won't you, Garry?

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