Jacques Testard has form for picking - and publishing - Nobel winners. His small publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions, is home to both Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk.
“I suspect it’ll be a woman, one of the names most bandied around these last few days – Anne Carson, Jamaica Kincaid, Can Xue,” says Testard. “If it isn’t, I hope it’ll be a non-European. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o would be fantastic, overdue. Carlos Fuentes predicted César Aira would win in 2020 – he’d be a great choice. One of our authors is convinced it’ll be a Russian this year, which could mean Ludmila Ulitskaya, or Mikhail Shishkin. But ultimately your guess is as good as mine.”
The Canadian poet, translator and classicist is also a new tip, thanks to Björn Wiman, culture editor at Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter, who doesn’t think the Swedish Academy will be put off by the fact that another Canadian, Alice Munro, won not so long ago (2013). The first woman to have won the TS Eliot prize for poetry, Carson is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, and has also won prizes including the Griffin poetry prize.
From Autobiography of Red, a verse novel telling of a winged red monster named Geryon who falls in love with Herakles, to The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, she has been described as “one of the most idiosyncratic intelligences at work in contemporary literature” by Fiona Sampson in the Guardian.
“Known for her supreme erudition … her poetry can also be heart-breaking and she regularly writes on love, desire, sexual longing and despair,” said the Poetry Foundation.
Jamaica Kincaid, pictured in 2019. Photograph: Clint Spaulding/REX/Shutterstock
Jamaica Kincaid, the Antiguan-American author who is seen as one of the Caribbean’s leading writers, is one new name doing the rounds this year. Kincaid was born in St. John’s, Antigua as Elaine Potter Richardson, leaving Antigua at the age of 16 to work as an au pair in New York. She changed her name in 1973, partly for anonymity as she began writing stories for the New Yorker. From The Autobiography of My Mother to Annie John, her novels explore the Caribbean and family relationships, in particular those between mothers and daughters, and provide a fierce critique of colonialism. Her memoir My Brother was about her half-brother’s death from Aids.
“Kincaid critically examines her Antiguan past with its colonial legacy, and her American present,” writes Luca Prono for the British Council. “She is deeply dissatisfied with both of them, as she finds that the society she has left behind was characterised by bigotry, while North America can only offer opulent ignorance and is permeated by racism. Her work is also characterized by a constant exploration of the mother-daughter relationship (‘I write about my mother and her influence on her children and on me all the time’), the quest for identity of former colonial subjects, especially women, and the cultural struggle against colonization and its erasure of local traditions.”
Richard Osman is taking no chances: after publishing his first novel, The Thursday Murder Club, earlier this autumn, he’s placed a tenner on himself landing the Nobel. The odds, he revealed on his Instagram, were 100/1. Not bad. “I mean, you never know, right?” wrote the comedian.
Lyudmila Ulitskaya, in 2019. Photograph: Vyacheslav Prokofyev/TASS
One of Russia’s leading contemporary novelists and short story writers, and a vocal advocate for freedom of expression, Lyudmila Ulitskaya began her writing career after she was sacked as a scientist in the 1960s, and accused of dissident activity by Soviet authorities for translating a banned American book into Russian. She holds the record for nominations for the Russian Booker prize, having been nominated five times and winning once (making her the first woman to win) and the Bolshaya Kniga (Big Book) prize. In novels and collections like The Funeral Party, Sonechka, Daniel Stein, Interpreter, and The Big Green Tent, she has explored the role of women in Russian domestic and public life, state surveillance, the intimacy and love found in non-traditional families, and faith.
Masha Gessen wrote in the New Yorker: “Every time I start reading something of hers, I am initially taken aback by the flatness of her characters’ emotional landscape and her transparently convoluted plots. And then, after a certain point, I can’t stop.”
Famously outspoken, Ulitskaya is dismissive of Vladimir Putin, calling him a “joke”. “I’m not afraid,” she told the Observer in 2011. “Compared to the Stalinist era, our government now is a pussycat with soft paws.”
‘Grand storyteller’ ... Maryse Condé. Photograph: Philippe Matsas/Opale/Leemage
Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé has very short odds this morning (not that that always helps you win the Nobel). She was the first and only winner of the New Academy prize in literature in 2018, a one-off award intended to fill the void left by the cancellation of the Nobel.
The author of some 20 novels, including Desirada, Segu and Crossing the Mangrove, Condé was praised by New Academy chair of judges Ann Pålsson as a “grand storyteller” who “belongs to world literature”.
“She describes the ravages of colonialism and the post-colonial chaos in a language which is both precise and overwhelming,” Pålsson said. “The dead live in her stories closely to the living in a … world where gender, race and class are constantly turned over in new constellations.”
Last year, Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel prize in literature, said the jury needed to “widen our perspective”, given that the award’s previous two winners, Kazuo Ishiguro and Bob Dylan, were both men writing in English. “We had a more Eurocentric perspective on literature and now we are looking all over the world,” he said. “Previously it was much more male-oriented. Now we have so many female writers who are really great, so we hope the prize and the whole process of the prize has been intensified and is much broader in its scope.”
Who will win is always a mystery - albeit a mystery with a recurring cast of contenders, with the occasional surprise (hey Bob Dylan, 2016’s Nobel laureate! Hey, you!) thrown in. Names tipped this year include the Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé, Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Antiguan-American writer Jamaica Kincaid and Canadian poet Anne Carson. (Lots of women – we’ll get to that later.) In addition, there are the perennial big-name favourites who should have their speeches tucked away already – such as Japanese bestseller Haruki Murakami, Canadian author Margaret Atwood and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan novelist, poet and playwright.
But who knows! Let’s see if nostalgia for the giddy days of 2016 kick in, and watch them give it to Van Morrison.