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Betting on the Nobel Prize for Literature

Lee Smith

Tomorrow the Swedish Academy will announce the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and various sportsbooks, like Ladbroke’s, are laying odds. But since the Swedish academy’s methods for selecting the prize-winner are a mystery to all but its members, those odds reflect almost exclusively the opinions of gamblers, most of whom are rather like the horseplayers who bet their favorite number or color of the jockey’s silks. That is to say, they’re suckers.

Nonetheless, it’s always interesting to speculate on who’ll walk away with the Prize, or whether the academy will do well by literature or merely prove, again, that even Nobel nods. It is unfortunately true that many of the Nobel’s choices have little do with literary merit. Remember that even the linguistically versatile Northern European academics who award the prize read a limited number of languages, the bulk of which are European. If this year they choose Ko Un it’s not because they turn to this poet’s work in the original Korean for solace and inspiration.

That said, the academy’s reputation for selecting writers on account of their political relevance is inflated. The translators, publishers and scholars of relatively unknown authors from timely danger zones say, the Proust of Yemen, the Yeats of Burma would like the academy to take account of the political situation that makes their chosen figure significant, but the Swedes rarely comply. To be sure, they named a Chinese émigré, Gao Xingjian, in 2000, and in 2007 they chose Orhan Pamuk in the midst of Ankara’s prosecution of the Turkish novelist for speaking out about the Armenian issue. But consider that it’s been almost a decade since 9/11 and they have yet to name an Arab, passing up the Palestinian favorite Mahmoud Darwish, who died in 2008.

The fact is that as often as not, Stockholm goes against the grain, naming authors that are, to say the least, politically indelicate, like the great VS Naipual, 2001’s winner. In effect, forecasting the Nobel Prize for Literature is less like handicapping the ponies than shooting craps, so let the dice roll.


At 61, Haruki Murakami may be a bit young to win the prize, and, paradoxically, the international best-selling novelist may be a bit too popular for the staid academy, but Nobel has a soft spot for Japanese prose fiction, with both Yasunari Kawabata (1968) and Kenzaburo Oe (1994) walking away with the Nobel. The last, and only, Australian to win the prize was novelist Patrick White in 1973, so the poet Les Murray, whose long verse lines and striking cadences make him something like a cross between Walt Whitman and Thomas Hardy, is a contender.

Africa and Middle East

Among the favorites, is Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan novelist and playwright whose Third-worldist, Fanonist politics are much less frequently honored by Nobel than the punters at Ladbroke’s seem to think. Another East African candidate is Somalia’s Nuruddin Farah, who has pulled down just about every major literary prize except for the Nobel. Rounding out the Africa contenders is the Algerian feminist Assia Djebar, and the Moroccan poet and novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, who writes in French rather than Arabic.

In the Levant there’s Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, but the real favorite here is Adonis. Born Ali Ahmad Said, the Syrian-born writer who now lives in Paris is best known for his poetry and the modernist movement in Arabic verse he helped jump-start. But Adonis’ most important work is his nonfiction, including the short impressionistic essays he writes for the Arabic-language London-based daily newspaper Al Hayat. His An Introduction to Arab Poetics, available in English translation, is actually more like a work of Arab intellectual history and cultural anthropology; his, as yet, untranslated doctoral dissertation, “The Fixed and the Mobile,” is one of the most important works of Arabic prose published in the last 100 years.

Amos Oz is another perennial favorite, but this year there might be competition within Israel from David Grossman, an outspoken critic of Israel’s last two wars and last three governments and whose To the End of the Land has just been published in English translation to great acclaim.


Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa is always in the running, as is the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, but the surprise here may be the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano, whose anti-American screed, Open Veins of Latin America, comes highly recommended by Hugo Chávez, who memorably and somewhat menacingly presented the book to President Obama at their first encounter.

The Swedish academy is fond of experimental poets—as long as they’re women, so Canada’s brilliant classicist Anne Carson is in the hunt. However, the bulk of Canada’s entries are novelists, like Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and of course Michael Ondaatje. No matter how many mawkish made-for-Hollywood highbrow romances the Sri Lankan-born writer tosses off, they can’t obscure the genius of Ondaatje’s early tour de force, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.

The last American winner was Toni Morrison in 1993, which is a long time given the size and influence of the American publishing industry. Don DeLillo and Paul Auster are culture heroes throughout Europe, as is one of the favorites over at Ladbroke’s, Cormac McCarthy. Seeing how much the Northern Europeans cherish tales of the American West  Karl May’s Old Shatterhand and Winnetou are among the best-known figures in German popular literature McCarthy is not a bad bet. Philip Roth’s inclusion in the Library of America series is an accurate indication that, unlike the majority of Nobel Prize winners, he’ll last, which is a good thing since he may have already won his Nobel in 1976 when the academy crowned a generation of American, and markedly Jewish, writers by awarding it to Saul Bellow. If Stockholm is looking to honor a younger cadre of American novelists, there’s the multi-epic graphomane William T. Vollmann, or Jonathan Franzenwhat I’d give to see Franzen in tails at Stockholm with a white bandana wrapped around his head in tribute the late David Foster Wallace. Rounding out the U.S. field, are Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carl Oates, and John Ashbery.


The Literature Prize’s not very well kept secret is that it tends to stay on the continent, which explains why so many minor, albeit interesting, European litterateurs, are getting attention, like the Spaniards Javier Marias and Juan Goytisolo, and the Italians Antonio Tabbuchi, Claudio Magris, and Umberto Eco. Peter Handke would have a better chance if a German hadn’t won in 1999 (Günter Grass). If it matters, an Albanian has never won and Ismail Kadare would make an excellent choice. The Swedes are reluctant to pick their own, which is perhaps why the richly deserving poet Tomas Transtromer is unlaureled. Another sentimental favorite is Czech playwright and former president Vaclav Havel, one of Europe’s great historical figures.

Oddly, a name that is rarely mentioned is Michel Houellebecq, whose new novel, La Carte et le Territoire, has been acclaimed a masterpiece in Paris. The French-born writer, who lives now in Spain, is a controversial figure—taken to court for “hate speech” against Islam, Houellebecq is frequently criticized for the violence and explicit sexuality in his novels, pornography according to some. And yet I think this is a very bad misinterpretation of the nature of Houellebecq’s work: a novelist who imagines the end of man with such longing, nostalgia and love, is not a nihilist but a humanist. Ideally, he’d share the prize with the other European figure who against all odds is doing his best to make Europe see that it is in danger of losing its roots, its tradition, its self. That would be Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI. Imagine, the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature split between the libertine and the pope, two of Europe’s last men.

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