Speculation Rife on Eve of Nobel Prize for Literature

Perhaps it is a bit strange to begin one of my earliest posts for the new incarnation of EuroSavant with a limitation – i.e. a reminder of what I don’t cover – but it’s unfortunately the case that Sweden lies outside our press-review purview. This is especially inconvenient this time of year, for the on-the-scene-and-connected Swedish press, it seems, can be counted upon to provide the hottest tips about the year’s crop of Nobel Prize laureates, just before they are all announced to the world roughly in mid-October.

Fortunately, Germany’s Die Zeit is also willing to survey Swedish sources to cast its own look ahead (Literatur-Nobelpreis: Macht DeLillo das Rennen? = “Literature-Nobel Prize: Is DeLillo in the Running?”), and it is interesting material, if rather too brief. Yes, from the title, the American author Don DeLillo (Underworld, Falling Man, White Noise, among others, including three plays, one written for film) is considered a likely candidate for the 2008 prize. DeLillo is one of those contemporary authors named here as Anwärter (“aspirant”); others are António Lobo Antunes of Portugal, Ko Un of South Korea, and another American, Thomas Pynchon. Specifically, these can be considered fully qualified, ready and having just been waiting for years for the right constellation of political considerations to align to finally be awarded the Prize – before each spoils his chances entirely by up and dying.

Race with Death

(It has always literally been a race between such “constellation-alignment” and death when it comes to the Nobel Prizes, since the rules laid down in Alfred Nobel’s original bequest prescribe that all awardees must still be alive – at least when named the winner, if not necessarily when the time comes to go collect the prize. This tension has particularly marked the Prize for Literature since more than any of the other prizes there are always candidates out there widely viewed by the literary public as “obviously” meriting the award, giving rise to a concerned attitude of “What’s the problem here?” among the many who care about such things when such candidates near their appointment-time with the Grim Reaper without having won their Prize. And of course, for whatever reason, many such “obvious” writers end up missing out entirely nonetheless – Leo Tolstoy, Graham Greene, and Jose Luis Borges have been only among the most obvious examples.)

And then there is the author who would seem this year’s hottest Anwärter of all, Philip Roth. For one thing, he just so happens to have a new novel out, Exit Ghost, one that happens to seemingly bring to a close the long-running tale, stretching over a series of his works, of his literary alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, and whose publication happens to spur the press from around the world to issue a new wave of reviews, interviews, career-assessing feuilletons, and the like – just when the worthies of the Swedish Academy, assigned to choose the Literature Prize winner, are engaged in their deliberations. I’ve definitely seen – and have been happy to read – suchlike in the Dutch press; perhaps more significantly, Die Zeit reports that the leading Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter this weekend devoted more than two full pages to Roth’s praises. Could it be that what we’re seeing here is a deliberate, media consultant-planned-and-led campaign to gain for Roth the only major literary prize that as yet has eluded his grasp?

It probably is not just as easy as that, as the above-mentioned fate of similarly “obvious” prize-winners attests; the political considerations must still come into alignment. For example, sometimes the pressure to finally give the award to a woman, for example, becomes so strong as to sweep aside mere considerations of pure literary merit, as when the Literature Prize was awarded in 2004 to the Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek. (Such pressures naturally also exert their influence on the Peace Prize – this is something I’ve addressed here before.) The Die Zeit article, as short as it is, does devote space to pointing out how Jelinek’s award is now widely viewed as as mistake, as indeed it seemed at the time even to the awardee. And anyway, as we read at the article’s close, in the words of Stockholm publisher Svante Weyler, the Swedish Academy always prefers to come up with a surprise awardee, rather than simply fulfill the public’s expectations.

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