Sometime in early October, the Swedish Academy will present this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. By now, they should have already reduced their list of candidates for this year down to five. But, nonetheless, I will throw up this list now in the hopes of getting their attention (yeah, right).
I had intended to combine this list with a retrospective on the complete works of Philip Roth, but I was also planning on tying that in to one of his novels in my top 100 and that’ll be a while, so I’m tying it in with a Rushdie novel.
It seems that at times the Nobel Prize Committee could use a list. To be fair, the Nobel Prize has gone to many worthy recipients, including Knut Hamsun, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison. And, because, with rare exceptions, the award doesn’t mention a particular work, it is hard to criticize the exclusion of any particular author in any particular year.
However, let’s look at this list: Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, W.H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, Arthur Miller, Vladimir Nabokov and Graham Greene. None of them ever won. They can be forgiven for excluding Proust and Kafka, as the bulk of their works were released posthumously, but they too often have ignored great writers around the world. And the Nobel Prize can only go to a living writer, so none of them are eligible anymore. I admire the writings of Coetzee, Pinter and Pamuk, but I don’t think any of the winners of the prize last decade were as worthy as the following five authors. Time is starting to run out on all three of them. Let’s hope the Nobel Committee makes a good choice.
A few names that I don’t include that merit some discussion are Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon. For years, I had the hope that the Academy would grasp that film is a form of literature, especially when the writer and director is the same person and that they would give the award to Ingmar Bergman. Since he died in 2007, my hopes rest on Woody Allen, but somehow I can’t see the Academy going that far.
A brief final note. My list consists of five individuals, representing five different countries. While one former member of the Committee is known for being anti-American and American literature, that still leaves the other writers on the list.
The argument by former permanent secretary Horace Engdahl was that “Europe still is the center of the literary world” and that “the US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” Both of these arguments are irrelevant when presenting the candidacy of Philip Roth. Roth has written much about the world (including Europe and Israel) and during the 70′s and 80′s, was the primary mover behind Penguin’s “Writers from the Other Europe” series, highlighting authors who lived behind the Iron Curtain. He absolutely has been a part of the big dialogue of literature. He is also an extremely prolific writer, usually putting out a new book every fall. His greatest work has been spread across several decades, including Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), The Ghost Writer (1979), The Counterlife (1987) and The Human Stain (1999). Last year his odds sat at 7-1, tied with Joyce Carol Oates with the best odds among American writers. He would be the first American to win since 1993. The description could easily include something akin to “his startling use of humor to express the Jewish-American condition in the modern world.” He’s 77, so he’s definitely running out of time.
Rushdie, of course, is all about the place in the world. After all, his place in the world was almost eliminated because of his belief in the written word. In the furor of the publication of The Satanic Verses (1988) and the ensuing fatwa, what was ignored was that it was one of the finest works of literature written in the 20th Century. Of course, Rushdie is also the author of Midnight’s Children (1980), the Booker prize winning book that was later voted the best of the Bookers twice. He continues to write and his newest novel is due out in November. That his winning the prize would be a good response to people of any religion’s belief that books should be censored for what they have to say would be worth it. But the fact is that he is one of the great literary talents in the world. His odds last year were 80-1. It is probably unlikely because he would be the fourth U.K. writer in the last decade (he would be considered a U.K. writer for the same reason that V.S. Naipaul was). I would love to read a Nobel description discussing “his use of magical realism and satire in deconstructing Indian and Pakistani history as well as the literary representation of Islam.” He turned 63 this year.
Atwood might be the most complete author on the list. To many she is known as a poet. She is certainly well-known as a novelist (most people first encounter her through A Handmaid’s Tale (1986)) and has won the Booker (and been short-listed five times). My first time reading her was her essay “Rape Fantasies.” She continues to be extremely prolific, putting out books all the time, whether they be poetry, novels or criticism. She would be the first Canadian to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature if she could pull it off and her odds last year were 25-1. There are many things that they could write for her if she were to win, including “her expression of a national identity for Canada in the course of her criticism, poetry and speculative fiction while never losing sight of the identity of her characters.” She will be 71 in November.
Murakami might be the most popular Japanese writer in the world. What’s more impressive is that he is also amazingly popular in his own country (those two things often don’t go hand in hand in Japan). Murakami leaped to international stardom with The Windup Bird Chronicle (1995) and has continued to earn great attention with each of his following works. If you discount Pamuk, because Turkey is also a European country, he would be the first Asian to win since his countryman Kenzaburo Oe back in 1994. Last year, his odds were among the best at 9-1 (though, Herta Muller, who won, was running at 50-1). He is only 61, so he presumably has plenty of time to win the award, which could say something about his “representation of the spiritual emptiness of the post-war Japanese generation while simultaneously depicting the uniting of Japanese society in such works as Underground and After the Quake.”
Kundera was one of those writers whose books appeared in the “Writers from the Other Europe” series that Philip Roth edited. He has lived in France for 35 years though and two French authors have won in the past 11 years. Though he became well-known for The Joke (1969) and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1977), there is no question that The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) is his best known book (and, let’s face it, his best book). Kundera’s work combines humor and desperation to mask the loss of identity in the Europe behind the Iron Curtain (they easily could say that). At 81, he is the oldest of the candidates and he hasn’t published a novel in a decade, but he continues to write essays and publish new books every few years or so. Last year his odds sat at 50-1.
The betting odds haven’t been placed for this year yet, but these are the five I’m certainly hoping will be heavily in the mix. Any of them would be an excellent choice. Let’s hope they don’t all suffer the same fate that befell J.D. Salinger. Because remember, once you die, you can’t win.