I had already reached the age when a man is tempted to try to tell himself the story of his life, as if it made sense, as if his life were a story, as if a path with footprints could be traced through the forest of his years.
I had made an attempt to turn into a detective, one whose unreliable witness I was myself. I had discovered within myself a principle of uncertainty. The detective’s questions disturbed the witness, so the witness shifted ground. He became someone else, not wholly new, but yet not the same.
This change elicited more questions from the detective who could not help himself in seeking clarity. He wanted to know what had happened and how it had happened and why it had happened. This was the form that his greed took.
If this detective suspected he was driving clarity away by the very act of seeking it, the suspicion was only a fleeting one that soon leapt the perimeter of consciousness and was gone back into the wilderness, its natural habitat.
The call came early in the morning as I was having my first cup of coffee, as I was half reading the newspaper, half excoriating myself for this reading of the newspaper, tantalizing habit of a lifetime.
I was thinking for the one thousandth time, or perhaps the ten thousandth time that I had never seen a situation with which I was acquainted in depth reported accurately in the newspaper. Was the newspaper fact or jive, or both in one?
“Is this Felix Bonarien to whom I am speaking?”
The voice was a sonorous one, very correct.
“Yes, yes, it is. I’m Felix Bonarien.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. It stretched out until it reached the edge of the impolite.
“Dr. Bonarien,” said the voice, “This is Torsten Renquist calling from Stockholm. I have the distinct privilege and honor to inform you that the Swedish Academy has designated you to receive the Nobel Prize…”
I was stunned. Was this a hoax or a dream?
I thought I was wide awake. My wife was still asleep upstairs. When the children were young she got up well ahead of me, but now that they were both grown and gone, the order of waking was reversed. If I was a Nobelist, then I should go upstairs and wake
Sophia to tell her the good news.
But I hesitated.
“The Nobel Prize for what?” I managed to ask.
“The Nobel Prize for Silence. It is a new prize this year. You may not know, Dr. Bonarien, that the terms of the Nobel bequest allow for the creation of new prizes as the human situation changes.”
“Indeed, I had no idea.”
“The Academy will be posting a short citation on its website in about an hour,” the voice went on. “May I read it to you, Dr. Bonarien?”
“Why, certainly. Of course you may.”
I took another sip of coffee, mostly out of habit, since what I really needed was something to tranquilize me while I tried to get my bearings, not more caffeine.
Far away in Northern Europe where it was much later in the day, Torsten Renquist cleared his throat.
“In our day, when there are far too many mouths and far too few ears, even if each human head comes equipped at birth with two ears and just one mouth, when our carbon emissions threaten to render the planet no longer habitable not only for ourselves but for a whole host of flora and fauna who are our fellow-travelers on this spinning orb, you have had the courage to remain silent, not to produce masterpieces but to go modestly through life listening and learning. The award is made for the entire corpus of your unwritten novels, all twenty-three of them, but from among those we would like to single out three, first of all, your very first unwritten novel, A Blind Pig, a ferocious rendering of the desperation of the young; second, Half A Loaf, about a middle aged man who settles for the sake of his infant twins, a son and a daughter; third, your twenty-second unwritten novel, More And Less Than I Can See, about a pioneering woman in the field of molecular biology. We trust that, even though you are one of the world’s leading experts on the cerebellum and its functions in feeling, you will not be offended that this founding award is not for your science but for your silence.”
There was silence on the phone.
I thought it might be rude of me. But I was flabbergasted. I felt a twinge with each title mentioned. It was uncanny. These were works that I had in fact considered writing. I had actually composed the first page of A Blind Pig when I was twenty-four, just as I was starting graduate school. I remembered, too, making extensive notes in my mind for Half A Loaf when Ilana and Amos were less than a year old. More And Less Than I Can See had been on my mind and in my mind when I had had cataract surgery just a year ago.
How had they come to know? What sort of eavesdropping was this that could fathom intention without the arc into action.
“It takes most Nobelists some little time to adapt to the idea,” Torstein Renquist, remarked in a kindly voice from faraway Stockholm, where I had never been. “There are exceptions, of course – James Watson, for one. For some, being awarded the Nobel is a kind of loss, for it takes away from them a star for their striving.”
“I’m very flattered, of course. It is not false modesty that makes me say I have not really done anything to merit the prize.”
I could feel my heart beating in my chest.
“Excuse me, I should tell my wife the news of my good fortune. I’m not sure she will believe me.”
“Good luck,” said the voice from Stockholm, “in handling the press.”