Monday, April 4, 2011

Australian Nobel Prize Candidates: David Malouf


If a big-state governor is a natural hopeful for a US presidential nomination, David Malouf is a natural hopeful for the Nobel Prize. He has won one of the pries routinely considered a stepping-stone for the Nobel--the Neustadt International Prize--as well as a newer award--the IMPAC prize--whose huge purse gave its first winner, Malouf,  great publicity. and is one of the frontrunners for the next international Booker a prize far more like the Nobel in contour than its annual stable mate although no winner of the international Booker has of yet won the Nobel.

Though one imagines his sales do not approach Carey's, Malouf needs on introduction in the broader world. Remembering Babylon was a huge hit and is regularly assigned; it is probably one of the novels that those who only know one Australian novel most know. Moreover, Malouf has had a steady career including such neglected jewels as Harland's Half Acre--one of the great novels about visual art ever written--and the recent Trojan War retelling Ransom, as fine a book has appeared in the past decade. Even books about which I was personally less enthused like The Conversation at Curlow Creek, were serious, important, and thoughtful. Moreover Malouf has written excellent short stories and is an acerbic and percipient lyric poet. He has also, like Carey, written nonfiction going beyond mere literary criticism and meditating on Australian identity and the aftermath of war and trauma, and even the idea of happiness itself.

Malouf might be accused at times of favoring style over substance or of having a style so seamless and so assured as to be in a sense too faultless. But although the Nobel has sometimes honored (as Les Murray might say) "sprawling" novelists (think Steinbeck, Andric, Solzhenitsyn) it has just as much favored more tightly-knit and meditative types (Kertesz, Coetzee, Jelinek, Müller). Moreover Malouf has welded style and substance in that he has commented with Flaubertian skill, on both World Wars the early settlement of Australasia, and most importantly, the idea of the primitive' and, in Remembering Babylon, white-Aboriginal relations. This is what some might call his "politically correct" credential, and Malouf’s name is closely linked with the Sorry Day and apology movements. Unlike Murray, he is perceived as a good, mainstream liberal with the  ‘right’ politics. This will help him, although also not make him an outside-the-box choice. Yet Malouf, despite his Lebanese paternal ancestry, is essentially 'white' in Australian terms, and the Academy might say, why give a white liberal a prize when one can do so to an Aboriginal writer? If Malouf--a writer of compelling, incisive achievement--does not win I suspect this will be a factor at work...

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