Monday, October 08, 2012

How Nobel

Haruki Murakami at MIT, in 2005 (Wikipedia)
Almost every year since I've been blogging here I present a short brief on the imminent Nobel Prize in Literature, arguably the world's most important literary award. Only once have I accurately named one of the writers who ended up winning, and then only in passing: Harold Pinter, the late, highly original British playwright, screenwriter, actor, and political activist, and 2005 recipient. Among the many writers I've hoped would be recognized, none have. I did call yet again last year for a poet to be honored after 15 years of that genre being overlooked, in favor of fiction, and the Swedish Academy, to its credit and no intervention of mine, honored the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. He was a widely acclaimed choice, though he did fall within the recent trend of the Academy looking within Europe's borders (or just outside).

Beyond Mario Vargas Llosa, J. M. Coetzee and Orham Pamuk, every laureate since 2000 has been European (and once could make a case for including Turkey within the European matrix). I also am including Doris Lessing, who was born in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran), and spent her formative years in Zimbabwe, but writes in a European language and has lived most of her adult life in the UK, and V. S. Naipaul in that group, though he hails originally from Trinidad and Tobago, but he has long been not just a virtual but an actual Briton. There has never been a laureate from Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Algeria, Lebanon, South Korea, Kenya, Cuba, Jamaica, Indonesia, Haiti, or quite a few other countries with vibrant literary histories, traditions and cultures. And, as I need not remind anyone, the list of deceased extraordinary writers who were overlooked since the establishment of the Nobel Prize in Literature is vast, while some of those who have been honored (René Sully Prudhomme, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, etc.) have vanished into the pages of oblivion.

If one trusts Ladbrokes betting line, this year's winner will be Haruki Murakami, the Japanese fiction writer, whose magnum opus, 1Q84, appeared early this year in English translation.  For critics in Japan and across the globe the mammoth tome confirmed his status as one of the most inventive and important living contemporary authors.  I'm a huge fan of Murakami's and think he is deserving, but I also think there are many other authors, some older and with fewer hours left on their clocks, such as the great poet Adonis (Adunis), or Guyana's Wilson Harris, or Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegría. Anti-poet Nicanor Parra is another. There apparently has been a kibosh on US writers since Toni Morrison's prize in 1993, and in 2008 in Horace Engdahl, then the Permanent Secretary to the Swedish Academy, spelled out the reason, describing US literature as "too isolated, too insular," and decried US writing (unfairly, of course), attributing to authors a critique of the American publishing industry: "They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature.... That ignorance is restraining." As I said, I thought then and think the criticism was unfair, and unfairly mischaracterizes all US literature by looking only at a portion of the whole. I take it, though, that the US, despite having a number of deserving writers, will be overlooked again this year.

Back to Ladbrokes, after Murakami, the Irish fiction writer William Trevor is high on the list, as are Mo Yan, a Chinese writer; Canadian writer Alice Munro; the Hungarian Peter Nadas; Cees Nooteboom, a Dutch fiction writer; and Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the great Kenyan innovator.  Unaccountably Bob Dylan is also high on the list. I must be the only person I know not to have leapt, at some point, on the Bob Dylan train, but I'm willing to own that. (He has written some amazing songs, but I also think people just go overboard with their praise of him.) Ultimately it will come down to the academy members and their aesthetics and politics. Any of those leading the Ladbrokes list, save Dylan, or many of the others on its rolls, would be a great choice. Or perhaps the Swedish scholars and writers will surprise us, with another amazing writer still under the radar. It's unlike, but not impossible. Just no Dylan, please. Please. We'll know in any case Thursday morning.


Why Albert Einstein never received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his theory of relativity.

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