BOOKS / DIARY OF A NOBEL EVENT
What happens when one of your authors wins the Nobel Prize? You rush out and buy evening wear. Kenzaburo Oe's publisher reports from Stockholm's non-stop Nobel party
Sunday 18 December 1994
We must go to Stockholm. We went in 1981 for Elias Canetti - it was magical. Will the Nobel Foundation have us again?
10 November Yes, we are to be invited. We book to arrive on 9 December. Oe is the first Japanese writer to win since Kawabata in 1968.
15 November Invitations from the Nobel Foundation arrive for co-director, poet/husband Arthur and me. The celebrations are very formal: what to wear? I have an evening skirt, but need a glamorous top. Where to go? I wish I were tall and willowy and 30 years younger. Oh well, off to Issey Miyake, top Japanese designer. Very appropriate: Japanese Nobel Prize celebration in Japanese clothes - but not too Japanese. The prices are impossible except for a pleated line which is affordable off-the-peg. We buy ablue pleated tank top to wear under a blue pleated jacket with a matching handbag. The Issey Miyake people offer us delicious champagne in celebration.
19 November Our incredibly well-connected Stockholm journalist-publisher friend Lena Svanberg calls: "You are arriving on the wrong day! All the important fun events take place before 9 December. Come on the 7th." Arthur goes to British Airways to changethe date.
Although it was a special deal his pleading succeeds. The 7th it is.
Four of us, including the translators, work on first galleys throughout November. The novel is like Lord of the Flies out of Albert Camus.
Japanese is unlike any western language, and Oe is a very sophisticated stylist. The language is difficult by its very nature: inversion of sentences, no singular or plural endings, nouns are often descriptive circumlocutions, no distinctions between adjectives, adverbs and even verbs, many verbless sentences. We aim at a smooth English version without losing the unique Japanese flavour.
7 December We get up very early - so early we spill grapefruit juice all over the place. Finish packing. Taxi at 8.30, plane leaves on time at 10.25. Stockholm shrouded in fog until midday, heavy rain when we arrive at 2 pm. Big envelope full of invitations. Just as well I packed enough clothes to vary my outfits for each occasion as we will probably meet the same people time and again. We are welcomed at the Grand Hotel by our friend Lena Svanberg and immediately run into Jon Snow of Channel 4, the only other Brit in sight during our entire stay (though he disappears, never to be seen again). Ten seconds later we are meeting most of Stockholm's luminaries: ambassadors, arts administrators, writers, artists, academics, Nobel committee and Swedish Academy members. Also Oe's publishers from Spain, Germany, Holland, Japan, America and Oe's friends and family. The social whirl has begun. Everybody is staying at the Grand Hotel. We have a charming room over looking the Royal Palace, the Parliament and Opera House, and the old town. Stockholm is built on water - a northern Venice.
We change for Oe's acceptance speech at the Grand Hall of the Royal Swedish Academy, founded in 1786 by King Gustavus III, who was assassinated in the Opera House during Verdi's Un ballo in maschera.
The royal balcony now houses the television crew. Chandeliers, golden columns, impressive rostrum. Packed with 500 selected visitors. The Academy meets every Thursday to discuss business, dispense stipends and scholarships, an unending discussion on language and grammar. It is now working on the first comprehensive Swedish dictionary, to be completed in 2018. Oe gives his speech in English - we follow the printed text - a very moving appeal for a more humane and less technological development of mankindin general and Japan in particular. Our artists are our conscience. One commentator, who listens to these speeches every year, says, "Very different, very original, and very brave."
Dinner with Lena, two doctors and the charming daughter of Mischa Sohlman, the Head of the Nobel Foundation.
8 December Lunch at the family home of Bonniers, Sweden's largest publishing house.
A mansion in the Royal Park of Stockholm.
Wonderful bookish atmosphere. 57 guests for delicious sit-down lunch. At last I meet my author. Kenzaburo Oe is a small man, his bespectacled gaze incredibly kind, full of intelligence and an impish sense of humour. Having read his dark-toned books, thisis a delicious surprise. I am at his table with his other Western publishers, his Japanese publisher, his Swedish translator (half Japanese) and the linguist Sture Allen who is the Head of the Academy.
After lunch Eva Bonnier gives me a private tour of the house with its gallery of contemporary portraits of their authors going back 150 years. Return to the hotel to change for the Japanese Ambassador's party at the Winter Garden of the Grand Hotel. Veryformal reception line which includes Oe's brain-damaged son Hikari, who has miraculously developed into a famous composer. I have heard some of his music - melodic, percussive, good. The Japanese women are very decorative in their lovely kimonos and obis. The Japanese do not shake hands but bow to each other several times. We westerners also bow (it is rather catching) but also shake hands. We have all brought our cameras so as to be photographed with the ever-polite and patient Kenzaburo Oe.
9 December A note on the hotel: It's built for giants. I can't reach the clothes rail or hooks, I practically drown in the enormous bath, and my feet dangle like a child's when I sit on the loo! I also have a cold. It is still raining. Lunch at the
famous Opera Cafe, meeting place of Swedish artists, writers, publishers, newspaper editors. We only eat typical Swedish food: their version of baked beans (called brown beans), meat balls, sausages, fried baby herrings, mashed potatoes, washed down withbeer and schnapps.
An afternoon reception at the Swedish Academy. The Grand Hall looks ever grander.
Wonderful buffet, more Nobel prize winners, brilliant scientists, ambassadors, reporters etc. Huge library of contemporary English-language writers not necessarily Nobel winners. An elegant, civilised place and so wonderfully inter- national. Again and again I am asked why our English-speaking world ignores contemporary foreign fiction. The truth is that we deny ourselves a lot of pleasure.
10 December Today is the day: the Nobel ceremony followed by the banquet and ball. Hairdresser in the hotel. Then I dress. Cold. Will I be warm enough? I try every combination with blouses, silk and lace sweaters under Arthur's tutelage. In the end we (he) decide to stick to the original plan of Issey Miyake's tank top and jacket with a double strand of amber beads. Actually, the heating in Sweden is always excellent. We meet Oe and his family on the way to the lift. All the men, including his son Hikari, are in tails, stiff shirts and punishing cut-away collars. The laureate's party have a stretch limousine, we go by bus to the Concert Hall: 1800 guests in evening clothes. On the podium the royal family including the King's sister-in-law Lilian (the former English actress Lilian Craig) the laureates and previous winners, members of the Nobel Foundation and the Swedish Academy. There are nine new laureates in physics, chemistry, medicine, economics and literature, Canadian, American, German and our Japanese. Each is introduced by a Swedish academician and is presented with his prize by the King. They bow to the King, the rostrum and the audience. Huge applause. Musical interludes by Grieg, Sibelius and other Scandinavian composers. The prize citationfor Kenzaburo Oe reads: "His poetic force creates an imagined world where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today." The prize is awarded for service to mankind. The ceremony finishes with the National Anthem.
Back into our coats and into the rain. Buses take us to the Town Hall. 1278 dinner guests are ushered into their seats. I sit with my publishing colleagues and some Swedish writers. At 7pm sharp a fanfare announces the procession of the royal family and all the guests of honour. This is the most sought-after event in Stockholm's social calendar. Splendid food and wine interrupted by musical and theatrical interludes. Each laureate makes a short speech. At 10 pm the procession moves back up the ceremonial stairs. Dinner is followed by dancing in the Golden Hall, an ornate architectural jewel. The views from there down to the hall where we have just dined is breathtaking. Like Cinderella I leave at midnight, through the pelting rain once more to the bus which takes us to the Grand Hotel.
11 December The sun is actually shining. The buildings opposite our hotel room are glowing in the sunlight and the water reflects the blue sky. Stockholm looks glorious.
I finally meet my author properly in the hotel breakfast room.
We discussed a few editorial matters and his forthcoming visit to England in spring and his promotional tour in the United States in April. We are publishing Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids on both sides of the Atlantic. My conjuring trick is to arrange things in both places at the same time. Not easy, but it can be done with the help of my wonderful colleagues. Oe is helpful and says he trusts me. I like him very much. He is a delightful, gentle, modest, kind, humorous man. And he is a wonderful writer. Iam very proud to be his publisher.
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