Two years ago, in “How to Pick a Nobel Winner,” I suggested that the literature prize is “apparently awarded by much the same method that the chairmanship of the UN Human Rights Commission is determined — on a rotating basis, as long as Israel and (increasingly) the United States are excluded.” The last American to be selected was Toni Morrison, 18 years ago. An Israeli has been honored only once, when Sh. Y. Agnon shared the 1966 prize with the German Jewish poet Nelly Sachs.
The numbers are very much to the point, since the Nobel committee prefers not to allow too much time to elapse between awards to the same country, the same linguistic sphere. And in recent years, even the gender imbalance has begun to be corrected. Since 1991, women have won six of the 20 prizes. Still, while women have never captured the prize in back-to-back years, men often have; and the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a contributor to COMMENTARY, won last year. He was the first man of the right to take home the award since V. S. Naipaul was recognized in 2001. Two prizes in a decade — the literary right is doing only slightly worse than women.
The obvious omission from the winners’ list in recent years has been poets. Since the inception of the literature prize in 1944, poets have been selected for 18 out of 69 prizes, more than a quarter of them or an average of one poet every three-and-two-thirds years. Yet no poet has won the Nobel Prize in literature since 1995 and 1996 when Wislawa Szymborska of Poland and Seamus Heaney of Ireland were “decorated” in consecutive years.
And finally there is language to consider. English-language writers have been named to 18 prizes; Spanish writers to 9; French, 8; German, 6. The other European languages — Russian, Italian, Swedish, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Yiddish — have shared 19 prizes among them. Writers in non-European languages have only won the prize five times.
As of this morning, the betting odds favor the Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, who writes under the pen name Adonis, at four to one. And for once the oddsmakers seem to be on target. Only one Arabic-language writer has ever been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature — the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz in 1988 — and Adonis is the best-known Arabic poet. If this is the Palestinians’ year at the UN, though, it may also be the Palestinians’ turn for the Nobel. Remember where you first heard the name of Samih al-Qasim (pictured at right), an Israeli Druze who celebrates the Nakba in Arabic verse. His PEN biography is here. A PBS interview with him is here. And here is a characteristic poem, entitled “End of Discussion with a Jailer”:
From the window of my small cell
I can see trees smiling at me,
Roofs filled with my people,
Windows weeping and praying for me.
From the window of my small cell
I can see your large cell.
One guess who is being addressed here. Awarding the prize to Samih al-Qasim would be a masterstroke: the Nobel Committee could recognize Israel and shame it at the same time. Qasim is not as well-known as Adonis, he is not even on the betting boards that Adonis currently tops, but he is more political — he is a voice of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli “occupation” — and the Nobel Prize dearly loves writers from the left.