The 50 Greatest Living Artists: Literature

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The 50 greatest living artists have been chosen because they exalt the human spirit through the creation of elegantly expressive objects and movingly modulated performances.

Lose yourself in these beautiful works and performances.

Each list consists of 10 persons in each of five categories: Dance and Drama; Film; Literature; Music; and Painting, Sculpture, and Related Media.

Within each category, the lists are alphabetical. Each individual's country and year of birth, as well as primary field of artistic endeavor, are given in parentheses. Note: When the name of an artist's birth country has changed, we give the name it had in the year of his birth first, with the current name afterwards, in square brackets.

In the performing arts categories (Dance and Drama; Music), not only authors (playwrights, choreographers, composers), but also performers (dancers, actors, singers, instrumentalists) are represented, as well as a few directors and conductors.

Whatever their individual differences, collectively these 50 artists demonstrate that in our day—rumors to the contrary notwithstanding—beauty is not dead.

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Greatest Living Literary Artists

1Aharon Appelfeld

(Romania[Ukraine], 1932; novelist)

Below is a 2014 conversation with Appelfeld on Belgian television.

Aharon Appelfeld belongs among the select company of writers who were touched personally by the Holocaust, who survived, and who went on to create literature of the highest order out of the experience. This makes him the peer of such eminent authors as the German-language poet Paul Celan, the Italian-language memoirist and essayist Primo Levi, and the Nobel Prize--winning, Hungarian-language novelist Imre Kertesz (there are many others).

Appelfeld, like Celan, was born in what was at the time the Bukovina region of Romania (now a part of Ukraine). The small town where he was born switched hands several times. When the Romanians (who were allied with the Germans) retook the town from the Soviet Red Army in 1941 (Appelfeld was nine years old), his mother was murdered on the spot and he and his father were shipped off to a camp, from which the young boy managed to escape. After hiding out in the local woods and villages for three years, he connected with the Red Army once again and was taken on as a cook. At the end of the war, he found himself in a camp in Italy for displaced persons. In 1946 he was able to make his way to Palestine. There he was finally reunited with his father in what he has described as the most emotional experience of his life, and one about which he has never been able to write.

The 14-year-old youth applied himself to learning Hebrew, the language in which he has written all of his many novels and short stories.

If one thing may be said to distinguish Appelfeld from some of his more famous peers, it is his ability to write about the Holocaust from a more objective point of view, in a greater spirit of detachment. By this, we do not mean that the protagonists of his stories and novels are not sympathetic, or that their fates do not move us. Quite the contrary! Rather, we mean that we do not experience his characters as embodiments of Appelfeld's own personal experience. He always keeps a certain distance between his characters and his own story. Thus, his books do not have the autobiographical feel of a novel such as Imre Kertesz's 1995 Fatelessness, magnificent as that book is.

This greater emotional distance allows the reader to experience Appelfeld's characters and their stories in a more conventionally artistic---hence less insistently moralizing---way, which tends paradoxically to enhance the aesthetic power of his books. At least, it gives them the sense of being open to criticism according to the usual artistic criteria, and of not being exempt from such criticism by virtue of a personal witness that transcends all aesthetic judgment. Perhaps more than any of his peers, Appelfeld has given the lie to Theodor Adorno's famous condemnation of poetry---and by implication, all art---after Auschwitz as barbaric. Appelfeld's tacit rejection of this idea also connects with the sense that his novels give that to allow the human spirit to be utterly defeated by the enormity of the Holocaust would be to hand the Nazis a posthumous victory (Celan and Levi are both thought to have died by their own hands). For Appelfeld, to give in to despair is simply not permitted.

As a result, Appelfeld's artistic project has been one of memory, or, more exactly, of preservation of the vanished world of Central-European Jewry from before, during, and immediately after the Second World War. Though he has lived his entire adult life in Israel, Appelfeld writes almost exclusively about the land and people of his earliest years. Through his highly refined narrative art, this world lives again in the consciousness of his many readers.

Appelfeld made his mark with his first novel, Badenheim 1939, published in 1978. It is a masterpiece, which some would say remains his greatest work. It tells the story of a group of friends and acquaintances gathered in a fashionable resort town on the eve of the war. The impending doom that we know is in store for them, but of which they are only becoming gradually aware, is intimated in dozens of ways, small and large. Most of the characters dither until it is too late. However, far from inviting the reader to condemn these men and women for not foreseeing and resisting their fate, the book forces us to the stunning realization that we, too, in their position, would most likely have been just as blind as they were. Badenheim 1939 is a masterful and shattering novel that you will not soon forget.

Appelfeld's social range is also very great. He is equally at home describing the young and the old, country folk and city folk, peasants and laborers, aristocrats, and the bourgeoisie. There are even unforgettable gentile characters scattered here and there among the Jewish ones (e.g., Katerina in the novel of the same name, see below). In short, Appelfeld's imaginative sympathy extends to every corner of the world he has chosen to make his own.

Among the best-known of his other 20-odd novels are the following:

2Peter Handke

(Germany[Austria], 1942; playwright, novelist)

Below is a conversation among Handke, the German film director Wim Wenders, and the British author Ian Buruma, sponsored by New York's Museum of Modern Art in 2015.

Peter Handke is a controversial figure in his native Austria, and indeed across the German-language cultural sphere and even Europe as a whole. The reason is political: Due perhaps to his own family history (his mother was Slovenian), he has very publicly defended the Serbs, whom practically the whole world has vilified as the chief culprits in the horrific Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s. It is not our place to take a stand on this highly charged and complicated issue here. Our reason for putting Handke on this list is entirely different---he is one of the greatest stylists, and most moving literary artists, of his generation.

Handke---who is equally at home as a novelist, a playwright, a poet, and an essayist---first made his mark with a play, Offending the Audience (1966), which tore down the "fourth wall" of the stage and consisted mainly of the actors' extemporizing by discussing the appearance, speculating about the love life, etc. of particular members of the audience. There was a gradual ratcheting up of the level of insults until at the end, physical objects are being thrown at the audience, some of whose members would throw them back at the actors on stage. From time to time, productions of Offending the Audience ended in real brawls---which we assume delighted Handke, who was nothing if not an enfant terrible.

But if he had remained an enfant forever, of course, Handke would have to interest for us here. But his work would eventually develop in a much more conventional way, which is to say, he would turn himself into an authentic writer, with a real vision of the world to communicate and the skill with which to do so.

Handke's next notable achievement was the classic novel of post-war existential angst, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970). Handke also wrote the screenplay for the 1972 film version by Wim Wenders.

However, Handke's reputation---and his claim to a place on this list---rests primarily upon a series of exquisitely wrought and deeply felt short stories and novellas that he published in quick succession in the early 1970s, including Short Letter, Long Farewell (1972), A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972), and A Moment of True Feeling (1975). These works, which draw to a considerable extent upon his own life (especially A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, which is based on the life of his mother), established Handke as one of the finest literary craftsmen of his---or any other---generation.

Later notable works include the following novels and short stories (please note that this is only a fraction of the output, which also includes numerous plays, poems, and essays, of this extremely prolific author):

3Kazuo Ishiguro

(Japan, 1954; novelist)

Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature October 5th, 2017.

Below is a 2015 interview with Ishiguro, focused on The Remains of the Day.

Although he was brought to England at the age of five and writes his books directly in English, Kazuo Ishiguro is in many ways a writer with more of a Japanese sensibility than an English one. He stands in somewhat the same relation to the great tradition of the classic Japanese novel---as represented by Yasunari Kawabata, Junichiro Tanizaki, Mori Ogai, Naoya Shiga, and, above all, Natsume Soseki---that Hirokazu Kore-eda stands in relation to the great tradition of Japanese art cinema (see the entry on Kore-eda, above). That is to say, Ishiguro consciously patterns his exquisite tales of heightened perception, melancholy, loss, and repression on his literary forebears, at a time when most of his contemporaries (e.g., Kenzaburo Oe, Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto) have turned their backs on that tradition, writing rather in the new styles imported from Europe and the United States during the post-war period.

As a young man, Ishiguro was attracted to rock and roll and jazz, and sent demo tapes to record companies during a year spent traveling through the U.S. and Canada after finishing college in the UK. He continues to writes lyrics for jazz performers from time to time. However, he eventually decided to go to graduate school, and entered the distinguished program in creative writing at the University of East Anglia (where W.G. Sebald taught for many years), where he received his master's degree in 1980.

Japanese had been the language of his home while growing up, but apparently Ishiguro never received proper training in the difficult written language, and does not read or write the language fluently. Therefore, it was inevitable that his first two novels---A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986)---though written on Japanese themes in a self-consciously Japanese manner, would be composed directly in English. The two books got him noticed, but did not take the world by storm, being perceived perhaps as being neither fish (Japanese) nor fowl (English).

Then, Inshiguro had the inspired idea of writing a Japanese novel, not just directly in English, but about England. The result was the sublime and devastating The Remains of the Day (1989), which won the Booker Prize, and made Ishiguro into a star of the international literary firmament. The story is a simple one: A butler in an English aristocrat's house before the war slowly comes to an unpleasant realization about his master. Everything is in the telling, in the choice of detail revelatory of the butler's inner state of mind and soul. In this, the novel could fit mostly comfortably in the Japanese tradition, but perhaps the reason the concept works so well in practice has to do with something similar in the traditional, upper-class English character, as well---the sense of form and hierarchy, the taste for understatement, the stoicism. Whatever the reason, the novel works brilliantly as a way of getting beneath the Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey stereotypes, and uncovering the psychological and even metaphysical depths that lie underneath the socio-political category of butler.

After the enormous popular success of The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro struck out in a different direction. His next novel, The Unconsoled (1995), is quite unlike anything he had written before. The author has written that, in addition to the Japanese tradition, he has also been heavily influenced by French literature, especially by Marcel Proust and Albert Cohen. And, indeed, though The Unconsoled may perhaps strike most readers as descended from Kafka's The Castle, we think that the book is much more closely allied with Cohen's 1968 masterpiece, Belle du Seigneur.

Hovering between stream of consciousness and third person free indirect narration, by turns lyrical and comic, mock epic and tragic, Belle du Seigneur is surely one of the greatest, if least appreciated, novels of the second half of the twentieth century. We do not say that The Unconsoled is quite in the same class with it, only that Ishiguro's novel is suffused by a similar spirit in its attention to the physical minutiae of everyday life in a circumscribed time and place. Whether The Unconsoled is entirely successful even on its own terms is difficult to say---it probably requires multiple readings for full appreciation. But if it is a failure, it is certainly a noble one.

Ishiguro's next novel, When We Were Orphans (2000), was an attempt to extend the Japanese and Cohenian sensibilities to the genre of detective fiction. But there is a fundamental mismatch between the existentialist pose of the detective genre---what is a Simenon character if not a Camus character with a gun?---and either the aestheticism of the Japanese masters or the life-affirming Rabelaisian sensibility of an Albert Cohen. It is surely this lack of fit between the conventions of the detective genre and the artistic means that Ishiguro brings to bear, which accounts for the book's universally acknowledged failure.

Ishiguro's return to form came with Never Let Me Go (2005), a seemingly simple story of a group of young friends coming of age in the setting of a traditional English boarding school---but a story with a ferocious sting in its tail. It would be criminal of us to reveal the sting here, so suffice it to say that line by line the book is as artfully written, page by page its scenes as finely joined, as any of Ishiguro's previous efforts. Once again, we find ourselves in the hands of a master.

Although, like When We Were Orphans, Never Let Me Go is another genre book, the genre it belongs to---science fiction---is far more elastic than detective fiction from a stylistic point of view. Thus, Never Let Me Go was better able to accommodate Ishiguro's special sensibility within its genre boundaries. The author's latest novel, The Buried Giant (2015), is yet another exercise in genre, in this case historical romance. Ishiguro has stated that the book---which is set in England in Arthurian times, which is to say in the aftermath of Roman rule and in the early days of Christianization---was loosely inspired by the fourteenth-century, Middle English romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. There are surely also echoes of John Cowper Powys's 1932 A Glastonbury Romance (Powys was in some respects an English forerunner of Albert Cohen)---which is not to say that Ishiguro has not succeeded in remaking the genre in his own aesthetic image, for he has.

The book is quite different from any of Ishiguro's earlier works in another important respect. Here the main narrative thematic elements are not focused upon the relationship between the individual and society, but rather upon the changing character of society itself. More specifically, the novel is about the loss and recovery of memory within a social world that has been subjected to the traumatic shocks of history. The critical reception of the The Buried Giant has been mixed.

4Ko Un

(Japanese-occupied Korea[South Korea], 1933; poet)

Below is an excerpt from a public reading by Ko, given at a 2006 South Korean poetry festival.

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