Svetlana Alexievich: A poet of people


Russian nurse attends wounded soldier during attack on Nazi positions in Stalingrad, 1942-1943 PHOTO/Via chndrskr/Flickr

The “Nobel laureate of Russian misery” reaches American readers, and new heights.

“So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time.”

—Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel lecture, 2015

The Prize

October 8, 2015. It was mid-afternoon in Sweden and the Nobel Foundation was about ready to do its thing. The world’s media was waiting to publish one of two stories—either congratulations or apologies to Philip Roth, or Haruki Murakami, or Adonis. Or, maybe the Foundation’s recent penchant for awarding the world’s most prestigious literary prize to someone relatively unknown in the States would strike again. People were even watching the live stream. Well, me. I was watching the live stream. That magical moment you find in theaters or concert halls arrived—all the ambient noise suddenly crested and then fell into silent anticipation. The door opened and flashbulbs started almost simultaneously. Not being fluent in Swedish, I listened for whatever was obviously a name. Was it going to be Roth? DeLillo? The last American was Toni Morrison in 1994. Right before Ladbrokes closed the bets, the odds favored Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist and writer. Her entire body of published work was five volumes, only two of which had been published in the United States.

The bettors were right: the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Alexievich, “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” In a somewhat unfair but not entirely inaccurate rendering, the New York Times’ Rachel Donadio deemed Alexievich “the Nobel Laureate of Russian Misery.” Though her work seems to have a through line to sadness of a marrow-deep level, there is also much joy, love, humor, and a sense of the marvelous in each of her oral histories.

War + Remembrance

As of next year, Svetlana Alexievich’s entire oeuvre, thus far, will finally be available in English. It can be seen as divided into two very distinct periods, which nevertheless exist in conversation. A reader can’t begin to grapple with the magnitude of Alexievich’s project by reading just a smattering of the books, or fully comprehend it without reading them all. In fact, a reading in proper chronological order (historically speaking) cracks something stark but wonderful wide open—nothing less than a spotlight on the Russian soul, national, cultural, romantic, religious, and otherwise.

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