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October 27, 2011

Chinua Achebe – the Laureate-in-Waiting

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By Kamau Mutunga

The 2011 Nobel Literature Prize has already been awarded, and Africa’s Chinua Achebe, perennially taunted as a worthy contender, has to wait another year.

The same goes for Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who was heavily tipped by literary punters to win last year. That was curious. The nominees are only revealed after 50 years.

The literature prize is given to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.

 So, why, for instance, has the 81-year-old Nigerian, widely considered “the most significant African writer of the 20th Century”, been given short shrift by Nobel’s Swedish Academy over the years?

This year’s Nobel Literature Prize went to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. His works comprise 15 collections of poetry, among them The Great Enigma and The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Transtromer.

Transtromer’s austere, polished poetry exploring themes of seclusion, emotion and identity, won the nod of the Swedish Academy “because through his condensed translucent images, he gives us a fresh access to reality”.

The 2010 prize was claimed by Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, another European — leading to accusations that the Academy is biased against non-European writers.

Those claims were given more impetus by the fact that the highly secretive Academy comprises 18 members — all Swedes — who have exercised historical notoriety in picking writers who critics have deemed, on average, as “minor, inconsequential, transitional or obscure, with the bulk of their yellowing works out of print,” contends Burton Feldman in The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige.

The Academy, notes Feldman, has overlooked more deserving literary heavyweights — Russia’s Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov and Vladimir Nabokov; Frenchman Emile Zola; and James Joyce, the Irish novelist and poet.

Famous snubs also include America’s Gertrude Stein, Arthur Miller, John Updike and Virginia Wolf — creating a mazy understanding of the Academy’s selection process.

While nominations are by invitation from qualified persons and organisations, in Africa, there has never been a bigger brush-off than Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart, his seminal, prescient and introspective effort of 1958, is considered Africa’s best literary work yet.

Elegantly written in spare prose, sprinkled with cubicles of Igbo wit and axioms, the “archetypal African novel” set in colonial Nigeria as a canvas of modernity’s onslaught on culture has been read and studied worldwide, and its characters; the tragic hero Okonkwo, Nwoye, Unoka, Ikemefuna and Obierika, celebrated.

 It has been translated into 50 languages. The most for any author, dead or alive.

In 2005, Time magazine named the “milestone in African literature”, Achebe’s magnum opus, one of the ‘best 100 English language novels written since 1923′ — the year Time was founded.

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October 8, 2011

Nobel literature prize for poet unable to speak for the last two decades

AFP/ GETTY IMAGES Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer at his home in Stockholm

By Arifa Akbar

Swedish poet who all but lost the power of speech after suffering a stroke more than 20 years ago plans to accept the grandest prize in literature by way of a piano recital.

Tomas Tranströmer, 80, was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature after the Swedish Academy praised him because, “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” The poet, who lost the use of his right arm after the stroke in 1990, is a keen pianist. Swedish musicians have adapted for him compositions designed to be played with one hand.

Neil Astley, the poet’s friend and the founding editor of Bloodaxe, Tranströmer’s British publisher, said the Swede often expressed himself through music, and anticipated a performance at the Nobel ceremony.

“I imagine he’ll be in a wheelchair, and he will speak to people through the piano,” he said. Mr Astley said Tranströmer’s latest poetry collection had sold out within hours of the announcement. More than 300 orders were placed straight away. The writer had previously sold around 4,000 poetry collections in the past 25 years in Britain.

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October 6, 2011

Nobel prize for literature: Tomas Tranströmer joins a strange gang

Nobel champions (of Stalin) Pablo Neruda, left, and (of Hitler) Knut Hamsun. Photograph: AFP/Corbis

For all their august reputation, the Swedish poet’s fellow winners have a notably chequered history.

By John Dugdale

In becoming the 108th winner of the Nobel prize for literature, Tomas Tranströmer joins a curious club in which giants such as WB Yeats, Rabindranath Tagore, TS Eliot and Jean-Paul Sartre are outnumbered by obscure figures (often Scandinavian realist novelists or poets from Mediterranean or Latin countries) you’ve never heard of. Several should not be in at all, according to the contemporary interpretation of the prize’s rules as excluding anyone except imaginative writers; the roll of honour includes the philosophers Henri Bergson, Rudolf Christoph Eucken and Bertrand Russell, the Roman historian Theodor Mommsen and Winston Churchill, whose chronicle of the second world war (put together by young researchers) secured his entry as a historian. Erik Axel Karlfeldt, a Swedish poet, was not only dead when awarded the 1931 prize but until his death had been permanent secretary of the awarding body, the Swedish Academy. Two more little-known Swedes who were then academy members, Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, were scandalously jointly honoured in 1974.

Politically, the laureates range from Knut Hamsun, who eulogised Hitler, to Pablo Neruda, who composed an ode to Stalin, and Mikhail Sholokhov, who had been a Supreme Soviet member under him; left-of-centre views perhaps predominate (Jorge Luis Borges’s support for rightwing regimes is said to have put paid to his chances), but conservatives such as Eliot, François Mauriac and VS Naipaul have received the nod too. Creatively, authors at the avant-garde end of modernism or writing experimental novels, plays or poetry after 1945 are scarce – Eliot, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon and José Saramago are the most obvious adventurers. Conversely, Proust, Joyce and other difficult authors have been shunned.

Of the 107 laureates since 1901, only 12 have been women, and a longstanding European bias is evident when countries are ranked Olympics-style by wins: first France, then the US, UK, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Spain, followed by Russia/Soviet Union, Ireland and Poland all on level pegging. Naguib Mahfouz is so far the Arab world’s sole winner and is one of Africa’s four; Asia has had three, divided between India and Japan; Latin America and the Caribbean seven.

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Nobel prize odds a-changin’ for Bob Dylan

Nobel prize for lyrics? Bob Dylan performing in China earlier this year. Photograph: Yan Bing/EPA

Late surge in betting sees singer-songwriter’s price shorten from 100/1 to 10/1 to win literature’s highest honour.

By Alison Flood

A late gamble on Bob Dylan has sent the singer-songwriter soaring up the odds to become the fourth favourite to win the Nobel prize for literature on Thursday.

Ladbrokes said this morning that the unlikely contender’s odds of landing the world’s most prestigious literary award had tumbled from 100/1 to 10/1 over the last 24 hours following “a substantial gamble from clued-up literary fans”. Dylan sits behind favourite Adonis, the Syrian poet, at 4/1, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer at 7/1 and Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami at 8/1.

For some years, Dylan has made a showing as an outside contender at the bookmaker’s. And it is not the first literary prize he has been in contention for – nor even the first this week.

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September 28, 2011

Adonis declared Nobel prize for literature favourite

Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar) visiting the Frankfurt book fair in 2004. Photograph: Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Celebrated Arab poet given odds of 4/1 by Ladbrokes.

By Alison Flood

After winning Germany’s major award the Goethe prize earlier this year, Syrian poet Adonis has emerged as the frontrunner to be crowned Nobel literature laureate next month.

Ladbrokes has made the 81-year-old, described as “the most important Arab poet of our time” by the Goethe jury, its 4/1 favourite to win this year’s Nobel prize for literature, ahead of another octogenarian poet, the 80-year-old Swede Tomas Tranströmer, at 9/2. “Adonis has been a permanent fixture on the shortlist in the past and the odds suggest this could be his year,” said spokesman Alex Donohue.

Last year the betting firm backed Tranströmer to win the Nobel, but the 18-member Nobel Academy plumped for Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa instead. “After hitting the woodwork last year we think Tranströmer has a superb chance of atoning for defeat,” said Donohue.

The reclusive American writer Thomas Pynchon is at 10/1 at Ladbrokes, with perennial contenders the Algerian novelist Assia Djebar (12/1), Korean poet Ko Un (14/1), Australian poet Les Murray (16/1) and Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (16/1) also frontrunners for the betting firm. The top 10 is completed by three new names in the running: Hungarian writer Peter Nadas at 12/1, Nepali poet Rajendra Bhandari and Indian poet K Satchidanandan, both at 20/1, with Romanian author Mircea Cărtărescu another new entry in 11th place.

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