The announcement of Herta Müller’s Nobel Prize in Literature praised her as a writer “who with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”

With those words and a string of encomiums, Stockholm gave us our 12th female Nobel Laureate in Literature.

Just 12 women in 109 years, and half of those have been awarded after 1991. Twenty-five years went between Nelly Sachs accepting the prize in 1966 and Nadine Gordimer giving her acceptance address in Stockholm in 1991. This has, of course, been a banner Nobel year for women; Stockholm seems to be working hard to stay true to its claims of being gender blind. Müller became the fourth woman to win a Nobel this year when hers was announced, and this week a fifth was added (see box).


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Now, just two years after Doris Lessing took the medal in 2007, we have Müller, long a Romanian dissident and now a resident of Berlin — who said, when asked what it felt like to be in the pantheon with Thomas Mann and Heinrich Boll, “I am now nothing better and I’m nothing worse. My inner thing is writing. That I can hold on to.” It is said she is relatively unknown even in her native Germany.

Here is a writer who spends no time trumpeting. Doesn’t that make her even more interesting? She has had only four books translated into English, though she’s written 20. Müller wrote critically of the dictatorship in her native country while still living there; she has described how it felt to live “every day with the fear in the morning that in the evening one would no longer exist,” and what it was like to lose friends who spoke out.

That phrasing is apparently typical of her ability to face brutal truths with a lyrical pen. Lyn Marven, a lecturer in German Studies in England, has said, “It’s an odd disjunction to write about traumatic experiences living under a dictatorship in a very poetic style. It’s not what we expect, certainly.”

Perhaps not, but it strikes us that it isn’t very different from the women of coal country planting flower gardens or the peasant widows of India weaving lovely cloth. Oppression doesn’t drum out beauty. It makes it more necessary, and for some it insists itself on the psyche until it must be expressed. So it seems to be with Müller.

Her novels readily available in English are The Appointment and The Land of Green Plums. Those of us with book groups might want to consider one of these, in solidarity with an author who spoke truth to power and who understands the necessity of “an inner thing,” something you can hold to and create from, something that surpasses even a Nobel Prize—even one so apparently deserved as this one.

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