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Handicapping the Nobel Prize in literature: a guide

September 29, 2011 |  8:21 am

Adonis_2011
Syrian poet Adonis is the front-runner for the Nobel Prize in literature. That's according to Ladbrokes, the British wagering house, which takes odds on possible Nobel literature laureates every year.

The Nobel Prize in literature is expected to be announced in early October, but that's about all the general public knows about the prize. Many literary awards announce their contenders along the way: The National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle make their five-book finalist lists public in advance, while the Man Booker Prize first announces a longlist that it whittles to a six-book shortlist as the judges move through their decisions. The odds showing at Ladbrokes are not a measure of actual chances of winning, really; instead, they show which authors seem likely to readers and to bettors, who are well outside the secret Nobel decision-making process.

That said, Adonis seems like a good guess.

Here are some reasons why. The poet and essayist is 81, so he has the benefit of years; his name has previously been mentioned in association with the award, leaving the impression he may have been under consideration in the past; he is a key figure in modern Arabic poetry; he was once imprisoned for his political views; he continued his support of modern Arabic poetry after leaving Syria; and in Syria, his home nation, a democratic uprising continues in what may be one of the most radical transformations following this year's Arab Spring. A combination of artistic excellence and social justice have often played well with the Nobel committee. 

Yet running not all that far behind in the Ladbrokes poll is an American writer who has had no apparent involvement in political life -- no cultural involvement, even -- outside of publishing his books. That's Thomas Pynchon, who's currently tied for fourth place.

The top authors in the running for the Nobel Prize in literature are, according to Ladbrokes:

1. Adonis - 4/1 odds

2. Thomas Tranströmer - 9/2 odds

3. Péter Nádas - 10/1 odds

4-5. Assia Djebar and Thomas Pynchon - tied at 12/1 odds

6. Ko Un - 14/1 odds

7-8. Haruki Murakami and Les Murray - tied at 16/1 odds

9. Mircea Cartarescu - 20/1 odds

10-17. Antonio Lobo Antunes, John Banville, Don Delillo, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, K. Satchidanandan, and Colm Toibin - tied at 25/1 odds

Ladbrokes continues its listing many, many more places down. Some of the above names will be familiar to American readers, but others may be less so. A primer of who's who after the jump.

According to Ladbrokes, these are the top contenders in the running for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

1. Adonis - 81 year-old Syrian poet.

2. Thomas Tranströmer: An 80-year-old Swedish poet, writer and translator. His poetry has been published in the U.S. by independent presses Greywolf and New Directions.

3. Thomas Pynchon: The 74-year-old American author was awarded the National Book Award in 1974 for his novel "Gravity's Rainbow," a book that failed to be awarded the Pulitzer in a judging controversy. Known as a major figure in postmodern American fiction, the famously reclusive Pynchon mixes sometimes grim, sometimes slapstick humor with heady concepts and rocket science. His other works include  "Mason & Dixon," "V.," "Against the Day," "Inherent Vice" and "The Crying of Lot 49."

4-5. Assia Djebar: The 75-year-old Algerian native was an activist for Algerian independence and remains a strong feminist advocate. She has moved between Algeria and France, taking academic appointments in both countries, and in the last decade has been on the faculty at New York University in the U.S. In 2005, she was named the first North African member of the French Academy. She has written more than a dozen novels in French; translations include "Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade" (1993), "So Vast the Prison" (1999) and "The Tongue's Blood Does Not Run Dry" (2010).

4-5. Péter Nádas: Nadas, who will turn 69 on Oct. 14, is a Hungarian novelist and essayist who has lived in Germany. In early years, when he was working as a journalist and some of his work was held under ban, secret police offered to approve a travel application he'd made if he became an informant; he declined. Nádas' novel "A Book of Memories," published in English in 1997, was hailed by Susan Sontag as postwar Europe's greatest novel. His next novel, "Parallel Stories," which clocks in at more than 1,000 pages, will be published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in late October.

6. Ko Un: The 78-year-old Korean poet spent 10 years as a Buddhist monk, although The Nation notes that he was also a "drunkard, teacher, political activist." In the '70s and '80s he was imprisoned for his activism against South Korea's military regime. He is said by some to be Korea's greatest living poet. He has written many works; "Ten Thousand Lives" and "Songs for Tomorrow," published by Green Integer Press, are among those that appear in English.

7-8. Haruki Murakami: The 62-year-old Japanese author published his first novel in 1979; he is one of Japan's favorite living writers. Considered a significant postmodernist, he has won a number of major international writing awards, including the Kafka Prize from the Czech Republic, Israel's Jerusalem Prize, Japan's Asahi Prize and the Frank O'Connor Short Story Prize from Ireland. His novels include "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World," "Kafka on the Shore" and the memoir "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running." His new book, the 1,000-plus-page "1Q84," will be published in the U.S. in October.

7-8. Les Murray: Australian poet, critic, translator and editor Les Murray will turn 73 on Oct. 17. Considered a leading poet of the Commonwealth, he has sometimes taken critical and political positions that go against the grain. He has won major international poetry prizes, including the European Petrarch Prize, the T.S. Eliot Award and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. His recent works include the poetry collections "Taller When Prone," "The Biplane Houses," and "Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression," all published in the U.S. by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

9. Mircea Cărtărescu: The 55-year-old Romanian poet is considered one of that country's leading literary figures. He writes and teaches in Bucharest and is a member of the European Cultural Parliament. He has published many books but just a few have found a home in the U.S. His short-story collection "Nostalgia" was published in the U.S. by New Directions in 2005; another collection, and a poetry trilogy, "Blinding (Orbitor)" will be published by Archipelago in 2012.

Time permitting between now and the Nobel, we'll get to those farther down on the list, including the eight writers tied for 10th place: Antonio Lobo Antunes, John Banville, Don Delillo, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, K. Satchidanandan and Colm Toibin.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Poet Adonis at the ceremony for the Goethe Prize in Germany in August. Credit: Simon Rauh / Reuters

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