The Nobel Prize in Literature 2015 was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time".
Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian writer whose oral histories have recorded thousands of individual voices to map the implosion of the Soviet Union, has won the Nobel prize for literature.
The Swedish Academy, announcing her win, praised Alexievich’s “polyphonic writings”, describing them as a “monument to suffering and courage in our time”.
She becomes the 14th woman to win the prize since it was first awarded in 1901. The last woman to win, Canada’s Alice Munro, was handed the award in 2013.
Speaking by phone to the Swedish broadcaster SVT, Svetlana Alexievich said that the award left her with a “complicated” feeling.
“It immediately evokes such great names as [Ivan] Bunin, [Boris] Pasternak,” she said, referring to Russian writers who have won the prize. “On the one hand, it’s such a fantastic feeling, but it’s also a bit disturbing.”
The academy called while she was at home, “doing the ironing,” she said, adding that the 8m Swedish krona (£775,000) prize would “buy her freedom”.
“It takes me a long time to write my books, from five to 10 years. I have two ideas for new books so I’m pleased that I will now have the freedom to work on them.”
Alexievich was born on the 31 May 1948 in the Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankovsk into a family of a serviceman. Her father is Belarusian and her mother is Ukrainian. After her father’s demobilisation from the army the family returned to his native Belorussia and settled in a village where both parents worked as schoolteachers. She left school to work as a reporter on the local paper in the town of Narovl.
She has written short stories, essays and reportage but says she found her voice under the influence of the Belorusian writer Ales Adamovich, who developed a genre which he variously called the “collective novel”, “novel-oratorio”, “novel-evidence”, “people talking about themselves” and the “epic chorus”.
According to Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Alexeivich is an “extraordinary” writer.
“For the past 30 or 40 years she’s been busy mapping the Soviet and post soviet individual,” Danius said, “but it’s not really about a history of events. It’s a history of emotions – what she’s offering us is really an emotional world, so these historical events she’s covering in her various books, for example the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, these are in a way just pretexts for exploring the Soviet individual and the post-Soviet individual.”
“She’s conducted thousands and thousands of interviews with children, with women and with men, and in this way she’s offering us a history of human beings about whom we didn’t know that much ... and at the same time she’s offering us a history of emotions, a history of the soul.”
In Voices From Chernobyl, Alexievich interviews hundreds of those affected by the nuclear disaster, from a woman holding her dying husband despite being told by nurses that “that’s not a person anymore, that’s a nuclear reactor” to the soldiers sent in to help, angry at being “flung ... there, like sand on the reactor”. In Zinky Boys, she gathers voices from the Afghan war: soldiers, doctors, widows and mothers.
“I don’t ask people about socialism, I ask about love, jealousy, childhood, old age,” Alexievich writes in the introduction to Second-hand Time, which is due from independent publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2016. “Music, dances, hairstyles. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. This is the only way to chase the catastrophe into the framework of the mundane and attempt to tell a story.
“It never ceases to amaze me how interesting ordinary, everyday life is. There are an endless number of human truths … History is only interested in facts; emotions are excluded from its realm of interest. It’s considered improper to admit them into history. I look at the world as a writer, not strictly an historian. I am fascinated by people.”
Danius pointed new readers towards her first book U vojny ne ženskoe lico (War’s Unwomanly Face), based on interviews with hundreds of women who participated in the second world war.
“It’s an exploration of the second world war from a perspective that was, before that book, almost completely unknown,” she said. “It tells the story of the hundreds and hundreds of women who were at the front in the second world war. Almost one million Soviet women participated in the war, and it’s a largely unknown history. It was a huge success in the Soviet Union union when published, and sold more than 2m copies. It’s a touching document and at the same time brings you very close to every individual, and in a few years they all will be gone.”
According to her close friend, the Belarusian opposition leader Andrei Sannikov, Alexeivich writes about “the history of the Red Man”.
“She claims he is not gone,” Sannikov said. “She argues that this man is inside us, inside every Soviet person. Her last book, Second-hand Time, is dedicated to this problem.” Alexeivich is “wonderful at interviewing” he continued. “She doesn’t avoid difficult issues or questions. Mostly she writes about human tragedy. She lets it go through her and writes with surgical precision about what’s going on within human nature.”
Bela Shayevich, who is currently translating Alexievich into English for Fitzcarraldo, also paid tribute to her skills as an interviewer which leave her work “resounding with nothing but the truth”.
“The truth of life in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia is not an easy thing to swallow,” Shayevich said. “I’m thrilled that this win will mean that more readers will be exposed to the metaphysical dimensions of her subjects’ survival and despair through the tragedies of Soviet history. I hope that in reading her, more people see the ways that suffering – even suffering brought on by geopolitical circumstances foreign to many readers – is also something that can bring people closer to one another if they are willing to take a risk and listen.”
Although Alexievich is widely translated into German, French and Swedish, winning a range of major prizes for her work, English editions of her work are sparse. Fitzcarraldo editor Jacques Testard came across her work in French a few years ago.
“It’s an oral history, as are all her books, about nostalgia for the Soviet Union,” said Testard. “She went around Russia interviewing people after the fall of the Soviet Union, in an attempt to surmise what the collective post Soviet psyche is. As with all her books, it’s really harrowing – a story about loss of identity, about finding yourself in a country which you don’t recognise any more. It’s a micro-historical survey of Russia in the second half of the 20th century, and it goes up to the Putin years.”
“She’s been a big deal in Europe for a long time, but she’s never really been picked up in England,” he said.
“Her books are very unusual and difficult to categorise. They’re technically non-fiction, but English and American publishers are loath to take risks on a book just because it’s good, without something like a Nobel prize.”
Alexievich led the odds for the 2015 award, ahead of Japan’s Haruki Murakami, Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse.