Nobel Prize Anyone?

In last weekend's "Australian" newspaper, Peter Craven raised the question of whether or not Australia would ever win another Nobel Prize for Literature. It's a reasonable enough parlour game, I've played it myself, so it is always interesting to have a look at the likely, and unlikely, candidates. I say "another" because, as most of us will be aware, Patrick White is Australia's only previous winner of the award, picking up the gong in 1973. The Nobel Prize committee makes it a specific point that a writer's nationality has absolutely no bearing on whether or not they win the prize. Fair enough. But it makes for a pretty boring discussion. The main prize website studiously does not list either the laureates' nationality, nor their language of choice, so I had to consult Wikipedia to get a nationality breakdown. And a pretty interesting one it is too. Top country so far is France, and I wouldn't have picked that. The USA maybe - they run a close second, 13 laureates to 12 - but how many French novelists can you name off the top of your head. Probably no more than four or five who might have been eligible some time in the twentieth century. This is not to denigrate French literature, by no means, it is more an indication of how little we see of it translated and available in far-flung outposts such as Australia. It's just a strange result, is all. Though I must point out that Wikipedia does include Gao Xingjian as French, as he lives there, and I have heard of him. But leaving aside the top countries what about the ones at the other end of the scale that have only won one Literature prize? It makes for interesting reading: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Columbia, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, Finland, Guatemala, Hungary, Iceland, India, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Portugal, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Yugoslavia.

Only one each for China and India? Strange. Switzerland has been awarded 2. Needless to say, English is the most awarded language with 26 laureates, followed by French with 13, German with 12, and Spanish with 10. Maybe Australia can point to this statistic as an indicator for why they have only been awarded one prize: Australian works written in English might well get lost in the ruck of the vast numbers of novels, plays and poetry written in that language. Just a thought. But to return to Craven's original article, the list of authors who might be under consideration is an interesting one; mostly for the authors he looks at that you might never consider an even faint possibility. Amongst the usual suspects of Peter Carey, Les Murray, David Malouf, Tom Keneally, Germaine Greer, Clive James, and Shirley Hazzard, you'll also find him talking about Peter Porter, Helen Garner, Robert Hughes, Murray Bail, Tim Winton, Elizabeth Jolley, and Sonya Hartnett; the last of those made my eyebrows head skywards. Craven gradually works his way through this list (although not in this order), praising in turn and dismissing their chances: not enough work produced, not enough variation, too early, aybe too late.

And he comes down to two: Carey and Murray. Peter Carey he deals with first and, while admitting the author may well win it one day, he finds it hard to imagine Carey doing so before such writers as Milan Kundera or John Updike. It's hard to argue with that point. So Craven comes down on the side of Les Murray, "the nation's most famous poet". Of the world's great poets, such as Walcott, Heaney and Brodsky, only Murray has not been awarded the prize. As Craven puts it, of Australian writers "..only Murray would not have his reputation significantly enhanced if he did win it." This year? No, can't see it happening. Writers in English have won three of the past 5 prizes which may have some influence. I know writers in English won three years in a row recently (1991 to 1993) but I also seem to remember some backlash against that succession of wins. So, no, not this year. But I reckon within five years we'll get to see the big fella in a monkey suit. I'd better get reading. Don't want to be caught being as ignorant of Murray as I am of Patrick White when I've had fair warning.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on June 8, 2006 1:49 PM.

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