Books

10.09.13

Nobel Literature Prize Favorites for Dummies, According to the Bookies

Will it finally be Haruki Murakami’s year? What about Svetlana Alexievich and Assia Djebar? If you’re wondering, ‘Who?’ we’ve got you covered with a primer on the top 10 likeliest Nobel Prize in Literature winners ahead of Thursday’s announcement. Plus, a gallery of the biggest Nobel snubs in history, and all the winners since 2000.

The sports betting site Ladbrokes opened its book on the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005 and since then has had a remarkable 50 percent accuracy rate. It correctly predicted the winner in 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2011. This year, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami once again has the shortest odds, but you might be unfamiliar with some of the other favorites. Here’s a primer on the 10 likeliest winners so you can study up before the prize is announced. 

Nobel Favorites
Clockwise from left: Adonis, Joyce Carol Oates, and Haruki Murakami. (AP (3))

Haruki Murakami, odds: 5/2, Japanese, 64.  

Murakami, the favorite last year as well, ran a Tokyo jazz club before he became a writer in 1979 with his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing. He is known for his surreal narratives about loneliness and metaphysics that are so fantastic that you are never quite sure where the story will go next. His books are filled with allusions to and influences from pop and Western cultures (Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore), and they have sold millions of copies not only in Japan but across the world, making him a global literary superstar. His magnum opus is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the story of Toru Okada, a man in his 30s who, after losing his job and his marriage, spends most of his time in a dry well and hanging out with an adolescent girl named May Kasahara. 

Notable books: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), Kafka on the Shore (2002), Norwegian Wood (1987), 1Q84 (2011)

Alice Munro, odds: 4/1, Canadian, 82.  

Munro’s “reputation is like a good address,” the critic James Wood said. “Nobody bothers anymore to judge her goodness.” If we were to judge her, she would surely rank as perhaps the greatest short-story writer of our time. Her retirement earlier this year could prompt the Swedish Academy to honor her at last. Munro has long been able to penetrate a character’s extraordinary private history in a moment of epiphany—she is the thematic heir to Chekhov and James Joyce’s The Dubliners. It is as if she can look upon a character, often a lower- or lower middle-class Canadian woman struggling through her days, and portray the full span of a turbulent life reflected through a crisis. Her last story collection, Dear Life, came out in 2012 and shows perfectly that she need not have ever written a novel to be considered for the Nobel—her stories are deeper wells than some thousand-page novels.

Notable books: Dear Life (2012), Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001)

Svetlana Alexievich, odds: 6/1, Belarusian, 65. 

Alexievich is little-known in America, though she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Voices From Chernobyl, the first oral history of the victims of the worst nuclear reactor accident in history. She is perhaps the premier investigative journalist in Belarus, and her books are often haunting chronicles of post-Soviet lives, delivered in firsthand accounts and powerful interviews.

Notable books: Voices From Chernobyl (2005), Zinky Boys (1992), The Unwomanly Face of the War (1985), Enchanted with Death (1993)

15 Great Writers Snubbed by the Nobel Prize
From left: James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf. (AP (2); Getty)

Joyce Carol Oates, odds: 8/1, American, 75.

Joyce Carol Oates is so prolific that she averages more than a novel a year, and that doesn’t even include her plays, novellas, short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. She’s been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize three times, received the National Humanities Medal in 2010, and won the National Book Award for them in 1970, which she considers to be one of her best. The book is the third in her Wonderland Quartet, which tells the story of three working-class characters—Loretta, Maureen, and Jules—as they fight to keep up with changes in American life from the 1930s to the ’60s. Oates is known for chronicling poverty, class conflict, and feminine struggles, and she is also a master of the Gothic and horror genres.

Notable books: A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), Expensive People (1968), them (1969), Wonderland (1971), Black Water (1992), Zombie (1995), We Were the Mulvaneys (1996), Blonde (2000), The Falls (2004) 

Péter Nádas, odds: 8/1, Hungarian, 70.  

The one thing that most critics complain to Nádas about is length—his Parallel Stories weighs in at more than 1,100 pages, A Book of Memories a measly 700-odd pages. But Nádas’s long, dense, sweeping, experimental novels have also earned him comparisons to Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, and Proust, and the critic Susan Sontag once called A Book of Memories “the greatest novel written in our time.” Nádas’s works are bookishly windy mixtures of genres that often deal with Central Europe’s post-WWII legacy. But they are also obsessed with bodily functions and sex, universals that help repressed and oppressed Hungarians and Central Europeans proclaim their individuality and humanity.

Notable books: A Book of Memories (1986), Parallel Stories (2005)

Jon Fosse, odds: 9/1, Norwegian, 54. 

The playwright Jon Fosse could avoid the curse of Henrik Ibsen to become a Norwegian dramatist Nobel laureate. He is one of the most performed European playwrights alive, with more than 900 productions staged in more than 40 languages. His barebones dramas have invited comparisons to Beckett, and his bleak treatment of mysticism and time gives him an air of “Scandinavian fatalism,” as theater critic Ben Brantley said. Fosse uses poetic dialogue, with rhythmic repetitions and silences, to dramatize life and loneliness. His first play ended with the lines “we will always be / alone together / be / alone / in each other.”

Notable books: Aliss at the Fire (2010), Melancholy (2006), Nightsongs (2002), I Am the Wind (2008)

Ko Un, odds: 10/1, South Korean, 80.

The magnificent Maninbo, or Ten Thousand Lives, runs to 30 volumes. It is the result of a vow Ko Un made when he was in prison, that he would remember every person he had ever met with a poem, and the series, like a long scroll that resembles the fabric of time, would include figures he loves in history and literature. Ko Un was born in 1933 and has led a remarkable life. He was rejected for the draft during the Korean War but was nevertheless ravaged by the violence. At 19 he became a Buddhist monk and published his first book of poems. A decade later he left the monastery, strongly disavowing the laxness and corruption of monastic life, and entered another decade of despair, plagued by alcohol abuse and multiple suicide attempts. His poetry during that time expressed his existential angst and his emotional torment. In 1972 he joined the opposition to the Korean Republic’s military dictatorship, was tortured and imprisoned four times, and lost hearing in one ear. It was then that he began Maninbo. He was released in 1980; he married, moved to the countryside, and has since taught poetry at Seoul National University. Allen Ginsberg called him a “jailbird” and “a magnificent poet, a combination of Buddhist cognoscente, passionate political libertarian, and naturalist historian,” and former poet laureate Robert Hass called him “one of the heroes of human freedom.” 

Notable books: Maninbo (2005), Lilttle Pilgrim (2005), First Person Sorrowful (2012)

Thomas Pynchon, odds: 12/1, American, 76. 

You know Thomas Pynchon—the elusive writer of dense, interconnected, postmodern allegories of paranoiac conspiracy labyrinths—although you’ve probably never read an interview with him or seen a recent photo of him. His 1973 novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, is often regarded as one of the most difficult books in literature and concerns the design and production of the German V-2 rocket. Its title might or might not refer to the trajectory of the rocket. V., about a discharged Navy sailor named Benny Profane and his involvement with a group of bohemians, one of whom is trying to find something called “V,” which might refer to a woman named Victoria Wren or an entity of which she might or might not be an incarnation of, or perhaps the “V” stands for the structure of the novel in which two story lines converge…I’m not sure anyone is really sure. It all makes the whole “Trystero” mystery in The Crying of Lot 49 look like a breeze. 

Notable books: Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Bleeding Edge (2013)

nobel-winners-literature-tease
Getty Images (2); AP Photo (2)

Assia Djebar, odds: 12/1, Algerian, 77.

Assia Djebar is the pen name of Algerian novelist and filmmaker Fatima-Zohra Imalayen. A staunch feminist, Djebar is author of The Children of the New World and The Naïve Larks, which portray the development of feminism in Algeria and the role women played in the country’s independence from France. Her later works became even more experimental, blending elements of autobiography, history, myth, religion, and politics. She was elected to the Académie Française in 2005 and teaches at New York University.

Notable books: The Children of the New World (1962), The Naïve Larks (1967), Fantasia (1985), A Sister to Scheherazade (1987)

Adonis, odds: 14/1, Syrian, 83. 

The Syrian poet Adonis’s real name is Ali Ahmad Said Esber. His father was a farmer, and he was so poor that he couldn’t afford an education until at the age of 14, he recited a poem to the president of Syria, Shukri al-Quwatli, and was granted a scholarship. In 1955 Adonis was imprisoned for being a member of the radical Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and after a year he was released, whereupon he settled in Beirut. Adonis is considered a pioneer of modern Arabic poetry, and his inventions include breaking with traditional formal structures to experiment with free verse, variable meters, and prose poems. His themes often deal with exile and transformation. What with the civil war in Syria and the Swedish Academy’s propensity for picking political dissidents, Adonis could be a not-so-surprising dark horse.

Notable books: Adonis: Selected Poems (2010), The Blood of Adonis (1971), An Introduction to Arab Poetics (2003)

The odds according to Ladbrokes:

Haruki Murakami 5/2
Alice Munro 4/1
Svetlana Alexievich 6/1
Joyce Carol Oates 8/1
Péter Nádas 8/1
Jon Fosse 9/1
Ko Un 10/1
Thomas Pynchon 12/1
Assia Djebar 12/1
Adonis 14/1
Amos Oz 16/1
Philip Roth 16/1
Ngugi wa Thiog’o 20/1
Umberto Eco 25/1
Milan Kundera 25/1
Javier Marías 33/1
William Trevor 33/1
Cormac McCarthy 40/1
Darcia Maraini 40/1
Nuruddin Farah 40/1
Salman Rushdie 40/1
Margaret Atwood 40/1
Don DeLillo 40/1
Eduardo Garriga 50/1
Leonard Nolens 50/1
John Banville 50/1
Bob Dylan 50/1
Cees Nooteboom 50/1
Les Murray 50/1
Ismail Kadare 50/1
Daniel Kahneman 66/1
Tom Stoppard 66/1
E.L. Doctorow 66/1
Peter Handke 66/1
Enrique Vila-Matas 66/1
Yves Bonnefoy 66/1
A.S. Byatt 100/1
Patrick Modiano 100/1
F. Sionil José 100/1
Ben Okri 100/1
William H. Gass 100/1
David Malouf 100/1
Ursula Le Guin 100/1
Sofi Oksanen 100/1
Colm Toibin 100/1
Karl Ove Knausgard 100/1
Ian McEwan 100/1
Shyam Selvadurai 100/1
Dai Sijie 100/1
Claudio Magris 100/1
Ferreira Gullar 100/1
Kazuo Ishiguro 100/1
Adam Zagajewski 100/1
Mia Couto 100/1
Mahasweta Devi 100/1
Juan Marse 100/1
Antonio Gamoneda 100/1
Gerald Murnane 100/1
Olga Tokarczuk 100/1
Anna Funder 100/1
Chang-Rae Lee 100/1
Shlomo Kalo 100/1
Per Petterson 100/1
Andrea Camilleri 100/1
Leila Aboulela 100/1
Maya Angelou 100/1
Herman Koch 100/1
Peter Carey 100/1
Edouard Maunick 100/1
Paula Fox 100/1
Louise Gluck 100/1
Bei Dao 100/1
Mircea Cartarescu 100/1
Antonio Lobo Antunes 100/1
Tim Winton 100/1
John Ashbery 100/1
Paul Auster 100/1
Marge Piercy 100/1
Kjell Askildsen 100/1
Leif G.W. Persson 100/1
ChangRae Lee 100/1
Hilary Mantel 100/1
Christian Jungersen 100/1
Merethe Lindstrom 100/1
Azar Nafisi 100/1
Marilynne Robinson 100/1
Richard Ford 100/1
Daniel Chavarria 100/1
Chimamanda Ngozi 100/1
Elias Khoury 100/1
Duong Thu Huong 100/1
Ernesto Cardenal 100/1
Gosta Agren 100/1
Edward P. Jones 100/1
Michel Tournier 100/1
Junot Diaz 100/1
Michael Ondaatje 100/1
Jhumpa Lahiri 100/1
Atiq Rahimi 100/1
Michael Frayn 100/1
Jeffrey Eugenides 100/1
Julian Barnes 100/1
Jonathan Franzen 100/1
A.B. Yehoshua 100/1
Anne Carson 100/1
Juan Goytisolo 100/1
Carol Ann Duffy 100/1
Peter Hoeg 100/1
Ulrich Holbein 100/1
Ghassan Zaqtan 100/1
Mary Gordon 100/1
Yevgeny Yevtushenko 100/1
Eeva Kilpi 100/1
Jonathan Littell 100/1
Jan Guillou 100/1
Vassilis Alexakis 100/1
Cesar Aira 100/1