We are just a few weeks away from the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which comes with unbeatable prestige and a cheque for eight million Swedish krona. The way our dollar is going that will be worth more in a few weeks than it is today, but let’s call it $1.35 million.
As we all know, for its usefulness at pub trivia nights if nothing else, Patrick White is Australia’s sole recipient, in 1973. Whether any other Australian has come close in the intervening four decades we do not know, as the prize has a 50-year secrecy clause covering the nominations process. It will be fascinating to read, in 2023, who White was up against (the nominations are culled to a shortlist of a handful) and how he won.
In recent years, two names have been most prominent in discussions as to who might break our Nobel drought: poet Les Murray and novelist Gerald Murnane, both of whom are 76. The average age of winners since the prize was first awarded in 1901 is 65, but in the past decade, with everyone living longer, it is 72. Of greater statistical advantage is Murray and Murnane’s gender: only 13 women have received literature’s highest accolade.
I have interviewed Murnane for this week’s cover story, which starts on page 6. We met to talk about his new book Something for the Pain, a memoir of his love affair with horseracing, but our conversation roamed, and his thoughts on the Nobel are interesting.
One thing we do know about the Nobel — and it’s something Murnane would appreciate — is that it’s a race for stayers, not sprinters. Typically an author is nominated for several years before winning. Take the most recent year for which records are public, 1964. The prize went to Jean-Paul Sartre. The archives show the French philosopher-author had been nominated each year since 1957. Of course, having finally won the prize he turned it down, offering by way of explanation an existential version of Groucho Marx’s refusal to join any club that would have him as a member. American novelist John Steinbeck won on his ninth nomination in 1962.
So, if the speculation about Murray and Murnane in the past decade is based on some knowledge of previous nominations, they must be considered genuine chances. The bookies do not agree and I’m sure Murnane would welcome that too. He’d rather be an outsider charging down the outside than a front-running favourite. London-based Ladbrokes has both Murray and Murnane at 50-1 to win the Nobel (the same price as Bob Dylan, which I mention for those who enjoy wasting money). That’s a far cry from the 8-1 on offer five years ago. The shortest-priced Australians are David Malouf and Peter Carey, each at 33-1. The favourites are the familiar names from recent years: Belarusian investigative reporter and author Svetlana Alexievich heads the market, followed by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the quiet (since his retirement) American Philip Roth. It’s not worth as much as the Nobel, but it’s sexier: the Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced this week. In contention are two Americans (Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread; Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life), two Brits ( Tom McCarthy, Satin Island; Sunjeev Sahota, The Year of the Runaways), Nigeria’s Chigozie Obioma ( The Fishermen) and Jamaica’s Marlon James ( A Brief History of Seven Killings). The winner will be announced on October 13. Department of clarifications: in last week’s review of five novels by the reigning Nobel laureate, Patrick Modiano, we said the Text Publishing editions of Little Jewel and Paris Nocturne were both translated by Penny Hueston. Paris Nocturne is in fact translated by Phoebe Weston-Evans. Apologies.