No Canadian has ever won the Nobel Prize in literature, but hopes are high that on Thursday in Stockholm the 112-year drought will end with an Alice Munro triumph.
If you wish to get finicky about the Nobel, you could claim Saul Bellow as Canada’s first literature laureate. He was born in Lachine in 1915 and lived in Canada for his first eight or nine years. However, his Nobel, in 1976, was for a body of work set, for the most part, firmly in the U.S.A.. If you’re going to claim him as Canadian, it’s a claim with a very big asterisk.
Occasionally over Nobel’s long history a more truly Canadian author has had his or her name touted as a candidate. Irving Layton’s been one, Leonard Cohen’s another. Margaret Atwood. Mavis Gallant. But as with so much associated with the literature prize, the touts have been born more of wishful thinking, faint hope and home-team sentiment than any sense of real possibility. The selection procedures of the Swedish Academy are so notoriously tortuous and secretive – there’s never been a published short-list à la the Scotiabank Giller Prize or the Man Booker, for instance – as to be inscrutable. Informed speculation counts for nothing here.
Still, this hasn’t stemmed the ruminations that ensue every year at this time about who should or could win the world’s most prestigious and, at roughly $1-million, most valuable literary award. This year Alice Munro has been caught in the vortex of speculation and raised higher in the sky than any previous Canadian author. Munro, who, at 82, announced earlier this year she was retiring from writing the brilliant short fiction that’s made her an award-winning international literary superstar, is no stranger to the Nobel mill. In 2011, the head of the Swedish Academy committee that picks the literature laureate told The New York Review of Books: “Be sure we read a select group of American, Canadian and Australian writers continuously!” Understandably, not a few Canuck pundits took Per Wastberg to be including Munro in that catchment.
What’s making Ms. Munro’s alleged candidacy a smidgen more authoritative this time is that the professional betting world is getting in on the act. Long-standing British oddsmakers like Ladbrokes and Paddy Power have been making book on the Nobel in recent years, giving the whole swirl of rumour and prediction at least the patina of mathematical precision. Ladbrokes, in fact, has tipped the winner correctly four times in the last eight years (in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2011) and for 2013 it’s rating Ms. Munro’s odds of winning an impressive 4:1, just behind the 5:2 odds for front-runner Haruki Murakami of Japan. Munro countrypersons Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Anne Carson also are in the factoring but way down as odds-on favourites.
By most measures, Ms. Munro is a deserving, indeed logical Nobel winner. There’s her talent, the steadiness and high quality of her output, an international consensus about her greatness, the triumphs over adversity (heart surgery, cancer, the death of a husband). Admittedly, she hasn’t been as much the public intellectual/activist as such previous Nobel laureates as Jean-Paul Sartre, Harold Pinter, Mario Vargas Llosa and Albert Camus – but is that a bad thing in our murderous, post-Cold War world?
By Thursday morning, of course, this sort of reasoning will either be vindicated or, as likely will happen, piled in the heap of tens of thousands of other failed predictions. One thing one mustn’t do in the Nobel game is to think you’ve figured out traditions and trends in the adjudication, especially traditions and trends that are so broad, finally, as to carry only the most obscure predictive weight.
Earlier this week, for instance, the novelist and Los Angeles Times contributor Hector Tobar – a Munro advocate, incidentally – noted that the Swedish Academy is “famous for choosing (every few years) a writer whose work is largely unknown outside his or her native country.” Tobar’s example for this is the 2011 winner, Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, who 11 years previous had won the biennial Neustadt International Prize for literature. The most recent Neustadt winner, in 2011, is Canada’s Rohinton Mistry so, by Tobar’s figuring, “that makes the author of [Such a Long Journey and A Fine Balance] a plausible surprise choice to win the Nobel this year.”
Uh, well … maybe. We’ll find out soon enough: the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in literature is to be named at 8:00 a.m. ET Thursday.