Nobel Prize Speculations

So, the announcement date for the Nobel prize in Literature has been pushed back by a week. The committee said that this is due solely to the dates and when they meet, but as others have said, it’s quite probable that this delay is actually because of a disagreement about who to award. Most times in past years, the eventual winner was in the top 10 at Ladbrokes (yes, people bet on everything; not only that, but betting sites are actually used quite frequently in Nobel speculation), and, to my knowledge, the few times it wasn’t, the laureate had been added to the list and was rising suspiciously through the odds at this point in time. So, going off this, who could be this year’s winner/if there is an argument, which writers could they be battling over?

Haruki Murakami has consistently been the odds favorite for many years now, could this be his year? Could some academy members wanting to give him the prize be the reason for the delay? Honestly, probably not. As a fan of Murakami, I don’t know if I’d say he’s deserving. His prose is simple (and not in the Hemingway-sense where it feels like there’s an artistic reason behind it) and at times awkward (which could be the translation, but I’ve heard the English versions are quite close to the original). His stories are all similar, and, most importantly, if they’ve passed over him before, I don’t see any reason to give it to him now. His latest book wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, and if he didn’t win before, I don’t see him nabbing the Nobel now.

There is Adunis, though, a Syrian poet who writes in Arabic. I’ve read a short collection by him, and although poetry is not really my thing, I wouldn’t mind to see him win. That said, he has been considered the frontrunner before and has certainly been nominated—in 2005, the last time the announcement was delayed by a week, he was thought to be a finalist—meaning, why would he win now? The political situation in Syria? The civil war and refugee crisis isn’t new this year, and in 2005, sources said Orhan Pamuk, who was undergoing a trial in Turkey over freedom of speech, was another finalist but that the academy might pass him over in order to prevent the prize from getting too political (Pamuk would end up winning the following year). Perhaps the row is over giving it to Adunis, but I don’t see why he would end up walking away with it.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has long been thought of as Africa’s frontrunner, but he has the same problem: nothing he’s published recently has really made waves. I also greatly dislike his work, so while it wouldn’t be the end of the prize if he won, I would prefer to see another African win. (On the other hemisphere, I put Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth in this category. I don’t understand why they keep coming up year after year).

Jon Fosse rose in the odds in 2013, when Alice Munro turned out to be the winner, but since then he’s been thought of as a likely candidate. Boosting his chances are his plays—Pinter was the last playwright winner—and a recent prestigious award for his recent “trilogy.” So we have an underrepresented type of literature with a recent big important work that might put him over the edge. I am hesitant, though: the same academy that awards the Nobel also gives out a smaller Scandinavian-only prize that Fosse won in 2007. If it was his year, I don’t know if an argument like this would be happening—the academy clearly already likes his work.

Javier Marias, meanwhile, is one of the few writers to see real changes in odds this year. He started out around 50/1 and moved all the way up to 17/1. The thing about him, though, is that he really didn’t deserve to be at such low odds originally. If I was a betting man, I’d have put some money on him just because of how low he was. He’s been bandied about in discussions online as a potential winner for several years now, and betting on him at 50/1 could give you a pretty penny.

Mircea Cartarescu has been called the Romanian frontrunner for several years now, after his humongous work Blinding, and just this year he published another large, critically acclaimed work. Like Marias, he also saw a jump in his odds, but also like Marias, he really should have been higher to begin with anyway.

So, who will end up winning? Other than Cartarescu and Marias, a few others have seen their odds go down (Fosse, Adunis and Roth included) but those changes were so small and there has been no other movement from them that no conclusions can really be drawn. And anyway, those with the lowest odds usually see them drop even lower in the weeks prior, so it’s not unexpected. Hopefully this next week, as the academy figures out who will win, we see more movement/even a leak.

As for my picks, I’d like to see Fosse or Marias win it this year. There are a number of others I wouldn’t mind seeing win (William T. Vollmann, Can Xue, Su Tong, Louise Erdrich), but I don’t think it’ll be any of them; had they made it to the shortlist, we probably would have seen their names rise (or just appear) on a betting list.

Book Review: Facing the Bridge by Yoko Tawada

In recent years Haruki Murakami has become THE Japanese writer. Everyone knows him, everyone reads him. His fiction, with its loneliness and surrealism, has found an audience all across the world. Which is why I am annoyed Yoko Tawada has not caught on. She can be uneven. She can be too out there. She can be too vague, too obscure, too unsatisfactory in her endings, but when she is on point, she does what Murakami does, but even better. Her novellas and novels, often depicting outsiders lost in foreign landscapes with few if any landlines, are also riddled with loneliness, and while Murakami dips into odd scenarios, Tawada is like Kobo Abe turned up to 11.

This is one of her better books available in English. It consists of three novellas. The first tells in parallel stories about a European slave stolen away from Africa who finds himself sponsored to study and become a professor, and a Japanese student living abroad in Germany. The second stars a German resident (formerly from Japan) who spontaneously decides to go on a trip to Vietnam and feels her sense of identity slip away. As for the third, before I go into it I should explain what I’ve heard about Tawada.

I saw her give a performance in Boston and while there I talked to a professor who explained that Tawada thinks of herself as a literary DJ, taking old stories and remixing them. Some of her stories that follow this format can be enjoyed without knowledge of the other work, but for some, it is vital. The third story here, about a translator on an island off the coast of Africa trying to do some work, is a retelling of the story of St. George and the Dragon and falls somewhere in between. It can be a pleasant read with no knowledge of St. George, but if you’re familiar with the original, it adds a whole new dimension to the Tawada.

Some biographical material might also help: Tawada was originally from Japan before moving to Germany after university, where she has lived ever since. She writes in the languages of both countries, sometimes flipping back and forth during a draft, and language is an important theme that runs through all of her works.

Her endings don’t always work, but these stories taken as a whole are haunting. They read almost like fables that spiral out of control.

Any fan of authors like Borges or Kobo Abe (or Haruki Murakami) will find a great new author here. After reading a few of her books, I think either this or her collection THE BRIDEGROOM WAS A DOG are the best places to start with her. If you choose the other collection, be warned: the title story is…quite lacking, but the other two novellas more than make up for it.

A Young Haruki Murakami

As a wannabe writer, I find nothing as motivating as learning about famous writers when they were just starting out. What were they like before they were well known, before they knew they had made it?

With millions of books sold across the world and numerous international literary prizes, Haruki Murakami is one of those rare writers who achieve popularity both with critics and with audiences. His characters’ apathy and the bizarre adventures have found resonance all across the globe.

He definitely has an easily identifiable style. The story of how he came to write his first extended prose piece at age 30 sounds like something straight out of his books: while watching a baseball game and drinking, a player hit a double and at that exact moment, Murakami realized he could write a novel. He went back home and began it. At that time he and his wife ran a jazz bar together, so his writing had to wait until late at night. But everyday for four months he kept on it. The result was the novella HEAR THE WIND SING, which he submitted to the Gunzo literary contest and won first prize, kick starting his career (a bit of trivia: the same contest also helped establish Ryu Murakami, who won for ALMOST TRANSPARENT BLUE).

He followed up with a slew of acclaimed novels, each one earning him more readers and awards, until he became Japan’s most famous writer.

It makes for a great story—who wouldn’t want to hit it out of the park with their first novel? But this leaves out quite a bit of backstory and makes Murakami into some lucky guy born with incredible talent, instead of a disciplined hardworker.

Anyone who has picked up a Murakami novel knows he is well versed in western (particularly American) literature. Since his teenage years, he had a voracious appetite for the works of Updike, Capote, Fitzgerald, and Raymond Carver, among many others. By the time he started his first novella, he probably knew more about contemporary American literature than many young American writers.

And, as he states in his introduction to Soseki’s SANSHIRO, in his 20s he made his way through THE TALE OF GENJI and the complete works of Natsume Soseki and Junichiro Tanizaki. (I cannot find anything on Murakami reading Kenzaburo Oe, but given how often the older novelists works are reference in Murakami’s, he probably read a lot of Oe.)

Hardcore Murakami fans might be aware of all this, but arguably the most important part of his origin story is rarely if ever mentioned. At Waseda University, he studied drama with a focus on screenwriting. In fact, running his Japanese wiki page through Google translate, it seems being a screenwriter was his first ambition, producing numerous scripts and scenarios, none of which have ever been produced. I’ve seen posts online about how these scripts, still stuck in his drawer, number in the twenties, but at this time I cannot confirm that number. Either way, he did a lot of screenwriting before trying his hand at prose.

Murakami thus goes from being a natural prodigy who struck gold with his first piece to an ambitious, well read, prolific writer who began creating work years before any of it saw the light of day. So any would-be writers feeling down today, just remember even the best often spend lots of time slaving away in anonymity, and if their biography suggests that they didn’t, it is much more likely that that section is just missing. And for those still discouraged, perhaps try switching formats. After all, a rejected screenwriter found success as a novelist: who’s to say it couldn’t happen again.