Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

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.

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