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The World Literature Watch in Norman, Oklahoma

February 05, 1989|ELIZABETH MEHREN

NEW YORK — Among the capitals of world literature, Norman, Okla., is hardly a name that wins instant recognition. This is a fact, or travesty, depending on one's perspective, that renders Ivar Ivask purple with indignation.

"There is so much of this snobbery," said Ivask, a professor of literature at the University of Oklahoma, and editor of that school's journal World Literature Today. "People say 'Oklahoma? What?' 'Oklahoma? Where?'

"I fight these terrible cliches," Ivask said by telephone from Norman. A native Estonian who came to this country 45 years ago, at age 16, Ivask said, "I defend Oklahoma. I defend the periphery. I defend the interior. There has been so much snobbery on the coasts."

For 21 years, Ivask has reigned as the fifth editor of World Literature Today, the 63-year-old quarterly that reviews books in 72 languages. "It's a steadier position than the president of the university," Ivask said, and laughed at his own impudence. His staff consists of three editors, a secretary and an assistant "who comes in and gets the things ready to mail." In the tradition of Roy Temple House, the green-eyeshaded chairman of OU's department of modern languages who founded the journal he called "Books Abroad" in January, 1927, contributors to World Literature Today are unpaid. Ivask laments that the magazine commands a mere 3,000-copy circulation, most of which ends up in university or state libraries.

"Few people are interested enough to follow literary developments in 72 languages," Ivask conceded.

But the journal's founding premise persists, Ivask said, and that is to "open the windows of world literature, and to bring foreign languages to the United States." House, the first editor, saw the effort as a "secret inland harbor which receives and registers cargoes of books from all over the world." His motto for the magazine was Lux a Peregre, "Light From Abroad."

"He felt isolated. He was worried that the United States was getting too inland-looking," Ivask said.

Six decades later, his successor continues to fret over literary ethnocentrism. Here in the United States, "and it is the same thing in Paris or London," Ivask said, "it is Anglo-centrism, then they add a few European languages."

So Ivask's World Literature Today, rechristened when he took over the helm because "when a small wine becomes a chateau wine you must put a new label on it," sees itself as a kind of voice of sanity from the center.

"Norman is in the middle, it is an island, in a way," Ivask said. "It has a nice central location." Far from New York and its stuffy bastion of critics, "there is no establishment to dictate to you," Ivask said, "and so you are free."

And so World Literature Today watches over the literary offerings of Malawi, Turkey, Syria, Japan; Australia, Cape Verde, Guyana and the Sudan. "We are trying to take care of the small literatures," Ivask said, mindful all the while that "there is nothing small, nothing big, only quality." What matters in the journal's selection of materials, he said, is "the quality and the language and not the ideology."

One city in which World Literature Today enjoys a disproportionate circulation is Stockholm, for among the journal's regular readers are most of the members of the Swedish Academy. Twenty years ago, Ivask dreamed up the idea of a prize for literature that would stand aside from the politics and intrigue of the Nobel Prize.

"Everybody was bitching about the Nobels, everybody was criticizing them," Ivask remembered. "I thought, well, why not do something, and why not out of Oklahoma, of all places? New York was not going to do it, Los Angeles was not going to do it, why not Oklahoma?"

Ivask took his concept of giving the Nobel Prize "modest competition" to officials of the university and to Oklahoma's Neustadt family, a fourth-generation dynasty of oil millionaires. The result was a perpetual endowment for the university's Neustadt International Prize for Literature, presented every even-numbered year to a writer selected by an international jury of peers. The Neustadt Prize carries a $25,000 purse. It has piqued the interest of the Swedish Academy in large part for its prescience in selecting writers who later go on to win the Nobel. Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Neustadt in 1972, 10 years before he won the Nobel, and Czeslaw Milosz was the winner in 1978. The 1988 Neustadt winner was Raja Rao of India.

Whereas the Nobel committee is "an in-group, an old-boys club, they all speak Swedish," Ivask said, the Neustadt Award jury is announced six months before it selects its winner. Each jury member, writers from around the world, may nominate one fiction writer, poet or dramatist for the honor. In a process that is "very democratic," but nevertheless "wears me out," Ivask said, the group meets for three days in Norman to debate the contestants' merits.

"It is very hard, you know, Mozart or Beethoven," Ivask said.

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