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Betting on the Nobel Prize for Literature

Forecasting the Prize is less like handicapping the ponies than shooting craps, so let the dice roll.

2:55 PM, Oct 6, 2010 • By LEE SMITH
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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 Franzen—what 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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