Long Literary Shadows On Nobel Shortlist

Oct 5, 2011
Originally published on October 6, 2011 4:05 pm

They are the Nobel literature bridesmaids. Every year, they appear on Ladbrokes' betting site alongside their odds of winning. Les Murray: 16/1. Cees Nooteboom: 33/1. Claudio Magris: 40/1.

Perennial names probably more familiar to American readers include Haruki Murakami (7/1), Chinua Achebe and Amos Oz. The latter two aren't even ranked by Ladbrokes this time around. If recent history is any indicator, that means they've got a decent shot of winning. The Ladbrokes lads, after all, did not bother to place odds for such recent winners as Herta Muller or Elfriede Jelinek.

Here in the U.S., drums are beating for Philip Roth. But those same drums are beating abroad, too. The UK's Guardian newspaper nagged Nobel Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl this week about whether Roth would ever win. "If I had a dollar whenever I got that question," he sighed. Roth's brilliant, prodigious output is certainly Nobel-esque. His greatest books, like Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral are arguably world classics. And with a novel like The Plot Against America, he's imagined the sort of externalized literature of global consequences so beloved by the Swedish Academy.

But the Academy also tends to reward writers who've worked in multiple genres — novels, dramas, essays, poems, translations — and that might hamper Roth and another constant Nobel bridesmaid, Tomas Tranströmer. He's a Swedish surrealist poet who's also spent a career as a psychiatrist working with institutionalized children.

A lot of folks around the world are predicting that the bouquet will finally be caught by Adonis, who's been mentioned as a contender for at least a decade. A victory by the Syrian-born poet would resonate in the wake of the Arab Spring, as people are still being jailed, beaten and killed while struggling, in part for free expression.

Some younger Arab intellectuals have criticized Adonis for not being involved enough with the Arab Spring and for being too Western in his ideological allegiances. It's true that Adonis has always been interested in bridging East and West — he helped introduce modern experimental free verse into Arabic poetry and has said he considers Nietzsche and Rimbaud among his most profound influences. But he's written movingly about the Arab Spring for months.

"I do not know how to cry," he wrote last May about protestors in Syria for the Lebanese newspaper Al-Hayat. "And even if I did, I would rather my eyes become two fountains of tears: a southern one for Daraa, and a northern one for Banyas and Jebla."

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The winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature was announced this morning. It is Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer.

Joining us, now, is NPR's Neda Ulaby. Good to have you, Neda.


NEARY: And, a Nobel bridesmaid finally won the prize.

ULABY: Yes. Transtromer has long been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel. And when the announcement was made this morning, you heard something highly unusual – Swedish people screaming with joy.

NEARY: Really? He's very popular there?

ULABY: He's wildly popular.

NEARY: So tell us a little bit more about him.

ULABY: Well, he was born in Stockholm in 1931, to a fairly well off and literary family. He's been a star in Sweden since he was 23 years old, when he published his first volume of poetry. But he's also had a very long and distinguished career as a psychologist and a social worker. He works with troubled kids and convicts – or he did, rather, before he had a debilitating stroke in 1990. And he's a pianist, as well. He used to perform, occasionally, during his readings, but since his stroke, he still plays the piano but only with one hand.

NEARY: Very multitalented. Did his training as a psychologist figure into his writing in any way?

ULABY: Yeah, he's interested in moments of self assessment, and the space between conscious thought and the subconscious. He was drawn to surrealist writers from an early age and his own work treads the line between wakefulness and dreams. He's a spellbinding and quite haunting poet. I'm going to read you this really short poem he wrote about getting into a car crash. OK.

(Reading) The approaching traffic had huge lights. They shown on me while I pulled at the wheel in a transparent terror that floated like egg whites. The seconds grew. There was space in them. They grew as big as hospital buildings.

NEARY: Wow, that's quite a poem - that idea of floating in egg white. So, he is the seventh European to win the Nobel Literature prize in the last 10 years. Has this Eurocentric focus drawn any criticism at all?

ULABY: Oh yes. Now, Transtromer, I think, deserved the prize. He's an extraordinary poet with a huge following here. He's good friends with Robert Bly and he's very influential, both in the United States and around the world. But it's hard not to think about the words of the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy a few years ago, when he criticized American writers for being too isolated and insular. After seven European writers being awarded the Nobel for Literature in 10 years, you have to wonder if those words might not be applied to the Swedish Academy itself.

NEARY: Well, thanks for joining us this morning, Neda.

ULABY: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: NPR's Neda Ulaby, talking with us about this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.