Tuesday, April 19, 2011

All-Male Miles Franklin short list

A strangely short and all-male (though not all-white) Miles Franklin short-list..and equally strangely, the judges' comments seen to denounce the longlist they themselves chose. I personally would have wanted The Legacy though certainly have not read all the books, amd the writers who were chosen are obviously outstanding.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Three Aussies on IMPAC award shortlist

Craig Silvey, Evie Wyld, and (see below entry)  David Malouf are all nominated. More from Stephen Romei in the Australian.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Friday, April 8, 2011

If an Australian Does Not Win....

So we have four strong candidates, Carey, Malouf, Murnane, and Murray. All are Anglo-Celtic males (yes, I know about Malouf's Lebanese paternal ancestry). All are writers who first came to world notice (some more than others) in the 1980s. There is a reasonably good chance one of these will win the Prize. But if none of these win, what will this outcome be saying?
    It could merely be a matter of happenstance. The Nobel Prize is not a lifetime achievement award; those who thought that Dorothy Hewett (whom I personally regard as a very distinguished writer)  would receive it, simply for writing interesting novels, plays, memoirs, having lived a long time, and being a woman with radical politics--were misjudging the nature of the honor. As said before, the Nobel Prize is not efficient; many who might well on standards of pure merit win given world enough and time are closed out by the clock. Indeed, there are writers who have 'unofficially' become laureates as people assume they would have won the Prize had they lived. (Sebald, Bolaño, etc.) If one of the above Australians wins, it is likely some of the below will not: Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Witi Ihimaera, Yves Bonnefoy, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Carlos Fuentes, Adonis, Ko Un.
    But if none of the four 'major' Australians win, it could be that the Academy is looking for a different sort of Australian writer. In a way it all comes down to Patrick White. Is the current generation different enough from Patrick White to warrant a Prize? Has it gone in new directions as far as world literature has concerned? We have had a modern Australian laureate; the four above all represent different aspects of postmodernity.
   Ten, twenty years from now, the list of possible Australian winners will look more 'diverse'. Right now, if any others were suggested, they would also probably be white males: Murray Bail, sometimes praised as an Australian Borges, is somebody who could be mentioned for the Prize, although likely he will come no closer to the prize than the real Borges did, despite the genuine acheivement of The Pages. Shirley Hazzard, with a 23-year gap between award-winning novels,  probably just has not published enough fiction to win, although her work is certainly eligible in terms of merit. Janette Turner Hospital has had a long and distinguished career and has also been involved in discussuons of international literature.   Tim Winton is a good enough writer to win, but probably, like Jorge Amado or Yashar Kemal, he is a deserving author who will not be seen as "highbrow" enough.  Winton is young enough though, and Breath good enough, to think he might enhance his candidacy in the years ahead. Kate Grenville conceivably could be a candidate now, with her international success, although as far as I know she has not been mentioned. But certainly she would be deserving, although, like Malouf, the question of a writer whose principal theme has been a white response to the Indigenous issue would arise. I would put this problem this way: "Can we have Le Clézio after Obama?" Jean Marie Le Clézio won the prize in 2008 largely for writing sympathetically about non-whites. But when non-whites in the metropolitan world begin winning Peace Prizes,  as President Obama did in 2009, is finding merit in that posture primarily possible? I am not saying Malouf and/or Grenville are limited to this stance, merely that they are best known worldwide for it.
     In ten or twenty years, Kim Scott or Alexis Wright or some other Indigenous writer nobody has heard of yet might be contenders. Had his ancestry not been questioned, Mudrooroo would be a contender right now. Christos Tsiolkas might seem too irreverent to be a Nobel candidate, but the world changes, and Tsiolkas is a writer of distinction. Nam Le has barely begun his career, who knows? This is not to say that there will be a permanent multicultural turn, that no Anglo-Celtic Australian writer will ever again be the face of their country's literature; the still-'young' John Kinsella has made a career of eminently Nobel-worthy contour, and Australian literary talent under 50 is considerable and deep. Though a writer's career can be complicated--both Thomas Keneally and Randolph Stow would have been thought, in time,  to be plausible candidates for this list when they were young, but they fell out of the discussion for very different reasons. Australia will very likely have plausible Nobel candidates in 2031.  But they will come from a different sort of Australia.
    I don't think this is the major obstacle to the four candidates. The major obstacle is a numbers problem, just as if one of them wins the major obstacle to a Roth or a Rushdie is a numbers problem. But it does raise an important issue. What is Australian literature? What does it look like to the global public? Who writes it? Brian Castro, for instance, is a writer of great quality but has not been mentioned in the Nobel speculation. Why is this? Whoever does or does not get the Nobel Prize, the Australian writers discussed in this series certainly have made a valorous and indispensable contribution to the literature of their country and of the world.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Australian Nobel Prize Candidates: Les Murray

In the late 1980s, Les Murray was often spoken of as a member of a 'superleague' of four current poets of international acclaim, the others: Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott. All four were writers in English who had come to the language thorough unorthodox means, Brodsky through exile and emigration, the others from the periphery or subaltern spaces form the Anglophone world to the center. All were in their own way traditionalists and innovators, comfortable with meter and traditional forms but also improvisatory and open in their sense of poetic structure. of the four, Murray is the only one to so far not have won the Nobel.

When interviewed last year with respect to Murnane's Nobel chances. Murray gallantly stepped aside in favor of his fellow Australian, born a year later, with whom he shares some interests (Hungary and the uncommon intellectual experiences of ordinary people) but who in other respects he diverged from (most notably in his religious trajectory.) Murray seemed to think his window was closed, yet his current book, Taller When Prone, has garnered considerably, if not always seamlessly insightful, coverage in the US and Europe, and he has become something of a household name in the UK and even on the Continent where his readings draw huge numbers. (He has never been a 'mass' phenomenon in the US the way Heaney has, and certain important US critics, such as Helen Vendler and Sven Birkerts, took an initial stand against him). Murray has, for obvious reasons often been linked to the Nobel Prize.

Murray may seem light-hearted or satiric at times, but his is a fiercely ambitious poetry, open to every sinew of experience, fiery with advocacy of the downtrodden and marginalized, the "battlers," even, and especially, when thy are set back by liberal, elitist pieties. Indeed Murray is often seen as a figure of the political Right, and this has no doubt hurt his contention, especially given Australia's position with respect to the Iraq War. The leftward bias of the Prize can be overrated. Had the Nobel committee been as insistently leftist as they are said to be, wouldn't they have given it to Margaret Atwood for Canada's not being directly involved in Iraq? On the other hand, writers associated with anti-leftist positions such as Vargas Llosa or V. S. Naipaul have won in recent years. But, unlike these, Murray is a man of faith, a Roman Catholic, who repeatedly dedicates his book to the glory of God, and for whom (despite his critics; tendency to play this down) Christian belief is central to his practice of poetry, though not at all in a dogmatic or constraining way. He is also a nature poet who addresses what might be called 'ecological' themes. This should make him a good candidate in theory. But actually the Prize has not particularly honored those who have made trees, plants, and animals a major concern. Murray's translations from the natural world within and outside his book of that name, are a major part of his poetic self. He also addressed the Indigenous issue early and concertedly in "The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle." 

Murray may or may not win. In a sense he does not have to, as his work has already achieved the position of international attention that a prize would admittedly accentuate. His is an extraordinary gift, one of the great talents in English, someone who could write a poem called "Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil"  and turned it into a rueful, visionary, playful performance.

So. of the four major reputed candidates--Carey, Malouf, Murnane, Murray--all deserve it and have a serious chance. There are no inflated or mysteriously un-scrutinized reputations here. Those cheering (barracking?) for an Australian to win have good basis for hope. In the next item, though, we will survey some structural factors, aside from those mentioned in the opening post, which may stand in the way of this happening in the near future.

Australian Nobel Prize Candidates: Gerald Murnane

As every bit of coverage of Gerald Murnane's chances for the Nobel have noted, Murnane, as a horse-racing fan of meticulous attentiveness and depth, knows all about odds, and when, in 2006 and again last year the British sports betting firm Ladbrokes  had him at fairly short odds as a Nobel winner, he knew both that he was in the running and that anything can happen after the morning line has been set.

Murnane, as a candidate, is the anti-Malouf. Whereas Malouf has won international prizes seen as prerequisites or at least qualifiers for winning the Nobel, Murnane, though he has racked up an impressive set of Australian prizes--including the Melbourne Prize and the Patrick White Award--has never figured in any prize award or speculation in the larger English-speaking world. Why then is he in the conversation? He is a writer of striking originality and vision, yet many such are never the objects of speculation. Unlike Carey and Malouf, he has never been a bestseller, not even in Australia. It would be a gutty, courageous, outside-the-box choice for the Prize, a reward for originality, not fame or good will.

Murnane has considerable support within the Swedish academy. Not necessarily the Swedish Academy with a capital A, but the Swedish academy with a small a,  meaning Swedish professors of English. Professors Harald Fawkner and Karin Hansson, and the influential translator Lars Ahlström, are all huge boosters of Murnane's work and have written about it with passion and profundity--Ahlström edited a special Murnane issue, published in 2002, of ARTES, the journal of the Swedish Academy. I was invited over to Sweden in the late 90s specifically to speak on Murnane's work to an audience of academics, journalists, and publishers who were all riveted, not necessarily by my talk, but by Murnane's work. Inland (for which I wrote an introduction to the new Sydney edition) was translated into Swedish a few years back, Velvet Waters translated in 2009 (and extensively reviewed in Swedish newspapers) and  Barley Patch is coming out in Sweden, France, and the US (from the influential Dalkey Archive)  this year. So the Academy members must know the name by now. Murnane is moving out of the backstretch in the World Republic of Letters stakes, and despite the frequent inaccuracy of the Ladbrokes odds, they have at least mentioned the eventual winner over the past few years, so however chancy the projections they still must have heard something for Murnane to be mentioned so prominently. Like Carey and Malouf, Murnane has a recent novel, Barley Patch, which is as good and as characteristic as anything he has written. His essays, collected in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, are considered by some his best work--he was represented in the Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature with an essay--and have helped humanize the literary public's image of this supremely introspective and private writer.

What's to prevent Murnane from winning? All past English-speaking winners have been better-known within the English-speaking world than Murnane, even when we remember somebody like Faulkner was a surprise choice in his day;  I can't tell if there was an equivalent situation in any other language (Kertesz?) but it is a leap to make from winning prizes only in Australia to the Nobel. Murnane is so impressive a writer and has garnered such prominent worldwide support among thinkers and intellectuals he could just do it, but this is a factor that lengthens the odds.

Also, Murnane is not really the kind of writer who traditionally wins the Nobel, in that he is self-reflexive and writes about the status of fiction as fiction. His stories and novels do have moment of social concern--"Land Deal"'s treatment of the Aboriginal issue,  the prominence of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 in Murnane's work--but they are more a subset of a cognitive compassion and a home-grown cosmopolitanism than a mission deliberately undertaken like Malouf's. Self-reflexive writers--Borges, Nabokov, Proust, Calvino--have tended to be shut out of the Nobel action. True, Proust died young (though he would have had to live until 80 to win I think) and Calvino might well had won it had he lived a few years. Borges's perceived right-wing politics cost him some support as perhaps did Nabokov's sexual emphases in Lolita and presumed Soviet opposition to him (in other words, if you are going to pick someone the Soviets despise, pick the morally worthy Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, not the 'irresponsible' Nabokov.) All these factors do not apply to Murnane, and times do change, people become more tolerant and open. But still, the lack of self-reflexive Nobel winners is a factor against him. it could be turned around in his favor were the Academy to realize that this was probably their last chance to honor this sort of writer, as in subsequent generations self-reflexivity ceased to be an aspect of originality and became an ironic inheritance of a jaded and commercialized  literary scene. This turn might be a bit subtle in this context. But it is the truth.

Look for Murnane's work to have increasing presence on the world literary scene, and to have a surprisingly reaonable chance for the Prize. Murnane's prominence in the Nobel conversation as a serious contender has brought new attention to his body of work, one of the truly singular and inimitable achievements of our time.

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...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Australian Nobel Prize Candidates: Peter Carey

A two-time Booker Prize winner, Peter Carey is without doubt the best-known Australian writer living today. If the Booker, and if being a writer both bestselling and highly respected in literary terms, was tantamount to a stepping stone to a Nobel, Carey would be a shoo-in. Yet the Booker--given for a specific novel, limited to fiction, and, in its regular annual mode, to certain Anglophone countries--is a different kettle of fish from the Nobel, a prize given across genres and for an entire career. That, as we will see later on in this series, novelists never remotely mentioned for the Booker have been seen as Nobel contenders augured for a certain separation in the prizes' identities, as does the aforementioned incident of the lost 1970 Booker not going to the one writer who 'subsequently' won the Nobel, Patrick White.
    Carey is both a delightfully entertaining writer and a profoundly serious one. He has written on primary Australian national themes in Illywhacker, Oscar and Lucinda, and True History of the Kelly Gang while also taking on more abstract moral and aesthetic issues in Theft, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, and Parrot and Olivier in America, and been up to taking on Dickens's ghost in the surprisingly underrated Jack Maggs Carey (a book I have always loved teaching). He has also written nonfiction--travel and memoir rather than literary criticism--which always helps to round out a Nobel winner's profile. He would be a popular winner, someone like Mario Vargas Llosa, Orhan Pamuk, and (the only true Booker-Nobel convergence) J. M. Coetzee already widely appreciated in the literary world. And, like Vargas Llosa, who after a few indifferent books returned to form with La fiesta del chivo, Carey silenced any doubters with the magnificent Parrot and Olivier.
      What hurts Carey? Well, if the Swedish Academy has a prejudice against the US (which I myself think has been overrated) his residence in New York might; on the other hand it is a mark of transnationalism, and Nobels have recently gone to writers with splayed national identities (Gao Xingjian, Le Clezio, Müller) or at least writers known for spending time outside of their home country. He may also be too commercially successful, though Pamuk and Vargas Llosa again provide precedents of novelists who sold well yet never were considered anything but serious parts of the conversation. Not every book of Carey's has been outstanding, but this is true of Hemingway, Faulkner...and many other Nobel winners up to Vargas Llosa. He has to be considered a serious candidate.