Ian McEwan Receives Laxness Prize

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English novelist Ian McEwan became the first person to receive the Halldór Laxness International Literature Prize Thursday. The prize is named after the beloved Icelandic writer, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. Among McEwan’s novels are Machines Like Me, The Child in Time and Atonement.

“His career has been a continuous triumph,” the selection committee states, “and he is often controversial, which is a sign of life for an author. We award a remarkable career, an author with an important message.”

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir handed out the prize at Veröld, house of Vigdís, Reykjavík. The monetary prize of EUR 15,000 (USD 16,600), to be awarded every two years, is given to a foreign author for the renewal of the art of storytelling.

Funding  the award are the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry for Education and Culture, Promote Iceland, the Reykjavík International Literary Festival, Forlagið publishing house, and Gljúfrasteinn – Halldór Laxness’ home museum.

You can watch mbl.is’ interview with McEwan above. In it, he describes Halldór Laxness’s novel Independent People as “one of the great novels” and “of Tolstoyan dimensions.” “It has a complexity, an extraordinary mix of social realism and awareness of the power of the imagination, and of the supernatural,” he notes.

“When I come into a writer’s house, something deeply metaphysical touches me,” McEwan states. He appreciates not just being the first to receive the award, but also that the award is identified with the writer. “It is a great honor to have that association.”

“I’ve been writing for 50 years,” he states. “It has now become my way of being in the world … and I regard novels as journeys. When I embark on a novel, it is going to be two, three, four years … It’s become a complete habit of investigation, of exploration.”

He is asked what effect the flood of information we receive daily has on literature.

“It is a massive distraction, and the business of the novelist to get the attention of the reader against so many distractions makes me wonder why the novel isn’t dead … What is it giving us that everything else is not giving us? … It has found a way to represent the inside of our heads better than any other literary form, any other form of art, even of cinema. I think the hunger for narrative remains almost instinctive within us. I think it’s the best way of describing or investigating, getting in between the sheets of private relationships, intimate relationships, and it’s also one of the best ways we have of measuring the individual against his or her society.”

He is then asked whether the role of the narrative has changed in a polarized world, where attitudes and views are so very different. “Populists are not interested in doing anything about climate change,” he states. Populist politicians propose simple answers to difficult problems and do so in an emotional language that appeals to the base of human instincts. Climate change, on the other hand, requires technological expertise, environmental awareness, and human sympathies for people in the future. “I think this does pose problems for us all, not just novelists, but it’s bound to be reflected in the work of novels,” he states.

“At the moment, things look dark, but things will also change very quickly,” McEwan concludes.

His novella The Cockroach will be published soon.

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