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“At last!”: literary Nobel to confound critics again

September 29, 2005

By Stephen Brown

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Bookworms will once again smile over
their reading glasses or snort with contempt at next week’s
Nobel literature award winner.

Second-guessing the choice of the Swedish Academy, seen
variously as standard-bearers for quality or a bunch of snobs,
is difficult.

The shortlist for the 10 million crown prize is a jealously
guarded secret.

“The Nobel committee has been very good at coming up with
names that were not expected. They will surprise us again,”
said Frederik Tygstrup, a literature professor in Copenhagen.

The political climate always colours speculation about who
will win. The Iraq war has created a lobby for an Arab winner
– Syrian poet Adonis is the bookies’ favorite followed by
poets Ko Un of South Korea and Thomas Transtromer of Sweden.

Bookmaker Ladbrokes made Adonis the 2-to-1 favorite for the
October 6 prize, but some better-known writers, such as U.S.
novelist Joyce Carol Oates and Czech Milan Kundera, are among
the top eight.

For the past five years, journalists at the Academy
ceremony have greeted the announcement with a sarcastic cry of
“At last!.” The cry was first uttered by Swedish journalist
Gert Fylking in protest at “intellectual snobbery.”

“It’s the ‘Oscar’ of literature, televised all over the
world, but they pick the weirdest authors,” said Fylking.

But, while even Austria was surprised when Elfriede Jelinek
won last year, winners are often deemed obscure for being
outside the mainstream of widely translated Anglophone authors.

The Academy — motto “Genius and Taste” — is resolutely
highbrow but has crossed cultural divides since the prize began
in 1901.

Recent winners include writers in Chinese, Polish and
Hungarian. Some, like poet Gao Xingjian, were not even widely
read in their homelands. Others, like Colombian novelist
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, already enjoyed huge popularity
worldwide.

Academy head Horace Engdahl contrasts the “vivid” interest
from countries with varied tastes to the “perfunctory” interest
from Britons and Americans, who largely read their own authors.

“A French or a German reader, or writer or critic, is more
likely to have access to the great dialogue of literatures that
Goethe called ‘Weltliteratur’,” he told Reuters.

A CLASSIER ACT

Engdahl blanches at the comparison to the Oscars, saying
the Nobel prize “ranks higher and is remembered longer.”

“I prefer the old-fashioned set-up of the Nobel ceremony
(in December) with king and queen and professors in tails to
the plastic surgeon glamour of the Oscar Gala,” he told
Reuters.

The Nobel selection panel is often accused of favouring
left-leaning writers, though Engdahl denied this.

Franck Nouchi, Le Monde’s literary editor, said that too
often the selection was “politically correct.”

“I’d like to be surprised by … an audacious gesture. That
doesn’t mean awarding it to an Uzbek poet or novelist whom we
would discover through the Nobel, but someone not necessarily
considered ‘Nobel-isable’,” said the French journalist.

He suggested American novelist Philip Roth, author of “The
Human Stain,” or an Israeli writer such as Aharon Appelfeld.

After Jelinek won, the conservative U.S. Weekly Standard
stormed that the “infamous snobs” of the Academy had again
given the prize to “an unknown, undistinguished, leftist
fanatic.”

There is a fair spattering of leftist laureates, but there
are also conservative icons, like Rudyard Kipling, eulogist of
the British Empire, and Winston Churchill.

Going further right, Norway’s 1920 laureate, Knut Hamsun,
was later convicted of collaborating with the Nazis in World
War Two.

The most controversial choice were Swedes Eyvind Johnson
and Harry Martinson in 1974: not for trumping Graham Greene,
Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, but because both were on the
Nobel panel.

(Additional reporting by Caroline Brothers in Paris and
Peter Starck in Copenhagen)




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