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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Nobel oblige: Steinbeck predicts a winner, and the burden of winning the Prize

Over at The Literary Saloon, M. A. Orthofer is performing his obligatory annual run-through of likely winners for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which will be announced tomorrow. [Update, 10/7: And the winner is Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.]. Earlier this week, Orthofer wrote at length about Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (currently a professor at the University of California, Irvine), who had been leading the Ladbrokes odds until this morning, when Cormac McCarthy overtook the #1 spot. Other American contenders (according to the oddsmakers, at least) include Joyce Carol Oates, E. L. Doctorow, Thomas Pynchon, John Ashbery, and perennial favorite Philip Roth.

This flurry of speculation takes us back nearly half a century, when John Steinbeck proved himself the ablest of prognosticators. Steinbeck received the Prize in Literature in 1962, and he sent a copy of his Nobel lecture to Saul Bellow with the inscription, “You’re next.” And indeed Bellow was the next American to win the prize, in 1976 (in a year Americans swept all the Nobel categories)—although Steinbeck had died eight years earlier and didn’t live to see his prediction come true.

The day the award was announced, the University of Chicago held a press conference (see video below) at which Bellow recalled Steinbeck’s prediction and said: “I knew Steinbeck quite well, and I remember how burdened he was by the Nobel Prize. He felt that he had to give a better account of himself than he had done.” Bellow was of two minds about the prize (“A primitive part of me, the child in me is delighted. The adult in me is skeptical.”); he worried that he might lose his privacy and he graciously acknowledged other writers, including Henry Miller and Christina Stead (neither of whom ever did win), who were equally deserving.

Related LOA works: John Steinbeck: Collected Works 1932–1962 (four volumes);  Saul Bellow: Novels 1944–1982 (three volumes)

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