How political will the elections be?: The Nobel Prize in Literature is often good for a surprise

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How political will the elections be?
Nobel Prize in Literature is often good for a surprise

Last year’s Nobel Prize in Literature for Abdulrazak Gurnah came as a real surprise, as did the awards for Louise Glück, those for Peter Handke and Bob Dylan, which were controversial. Will the Swedish Academy make a political statement this year in the election of the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami of course, but also Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Anne Carson. As the world waits every year for the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature to be announced, certain names should not be missing from the circle of favorites. Ahead of the announcement on Thursday, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine raised the question of whether the prize could go to a Ukrainian or other author from Eastern Europe – and with it, the question of how politics should be the world’s foremost literary prize.

“Well, I really hope a Nobel Peace Prize is sent to Ukraine. But I don’t want the Nobel Prize in Literature to be so politicized,” says German literary critic Denis Scheck. The Nobel Prize in Literature should be awarded on the basis of aesthetic criteria – not political criteria. Now the Swedish Academy, which announces the winner every autumn Thursday in the pompous stock exchange building in Stockholm’s Old Town, is not out for controversy. The award for American musician Bob Dylan in 2016 was extremely controversial, as was Austrian Peter Handke, who was criticized three years later for his stance on the Yugoslavia conflict.

In between these two awards, the academy also experienced widespread scandal involving the now-resigned academy member Katarina Frostenson and her husband Jean-Claude Arnault, who had been convicted of rape. After a long struggle, the venerable academy left behind this scandal, which initially prevented the Nobel Prize in Literature from being awarded in 2018.

In 2019 there was a double prize for the Pole Olga Tokarczuk as the later winner of 2018 and for the aforementioned Handke, then two surprises: first the Academy conjured the name of the American poet Louise Glück from the hat in 2020, and then finally year that of the Tanzanian authors Abdulrazak Gurnah.

“Lots to say” to the readers

“I have to admit I didn’t know this author before either,” Scheck says of Gurnah himself. “And I was very, very positively surprised.” Gurnah has a lot to say especially to German readers as he deals with the crimes of German colonial history in East Africa. And this time? Like every year, it is completely open in advance who will receive the famous Nobel medal and the prize money of ten million Swedish kronor (about 920,000 euros).

This time there are 233 candidates on the so-called long list for the award, according to the Swedish Academy. Which names are among them – that is always kept top secret. So all that’s left is to look into the crystal ball. Literature expert Miriam Zeh thinks it’s possible, among other things, that the prize will go to Eastern Europe – or to Salman Rushdie, who was attacked and seriously injured in an assassination attempt in the US in mid-August.

Both would have a political dimension, which Zeh didn’t think was wrong. “Of course, according to the self-definition of the price, it is justified to also send a political signal,” she says. “I don’t think that comes at the expense of the price.” Betting shops also see Rushdie – next to Michel Houellebecq – at the very top. However, given the academy’s penchant for surprises, Zeh can imagine that it won’t be one of the authors who will be publicly favored in advance.

Interesting set of candidates

That could also reduce the chances of success of the Ukrainian writer Serhij Zhadan. He only received the Peace Prize from the German Book Trade at the end of June. Instead of going directly to Ukraine, the Nobel Prize could also go to other countries in Eastern Europe, Zeh suspects. “There are also other states that were or are under the influence of Russian imperialism.” The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine did not go unnoticed at the Academy this year either. Contrary to her habit of not commenting on political matters, she had strongly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine early on. Russia’s actions go beyond politics and threaten the world order built on peace, freedom and democracy, the institution wrote in a rare statement in early March.

Denis Scheck has a big favorite from France on his list this year: Annie Ernaux. “She is the leading star for many authors because she is the mother of autofiction.” The 82-year-old writer struggles with the class barriers that still exist in Europe today and thus with very political issues – but not the ones you read about on page one of a daily newspaper.

A potential problem for Ernaux: she too has been one of the favorites for a long time, which the academy seems to like to avoid. But Scheck has other candidates in mind. He would mainly deal with the American Thomas Pynchon, but also the Chinese Can Xue, who writes about home and homelessness, and the Somalian Nuruddin Farah, whose great novels mainly deal with the situation of women in Africa. And from the German-speaking area? Martin Walser would be his ‘heart candidate’ there again, says Scheck. “He’s the chronicler of the Federal Republic.” Christoph Ransmayr from Austria would also be a worthy winner, “certainly since his novel ‘Cox’”.

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