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Jewish Russian author among frontrunners for Nobel in literature

Among the contenders given best odds of winning are Lyudmila Ulitskaya; Israeli author David Grossman also spoken of in run-up to award announcement

Russian author Lyudmila Ulitskaya meets with readers at the International Book Fair of Hungary, April 24, 2009.  (MTI, Lajos Soos/AP)
Russian author Lyudmila Ulitskaya meets with readers at the International Book Fair of Hungary, April 24, 2009. (MTI, Lajos Soos/AP)

STOCKHOLM (AP) — The Nobel Prize for Literature is set to be awarded Thursday with Russian Jewish novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya tipped among a handful of frontrunners for the prestigious award.

British bookmakers Ladbrokes have ranked Canadian poet Anne Carson as the 5-1 favorite, followed by Ulitskaya, Canadian author Margaret Atwood, and Guadeloupe-born writer Maryse Conde all at 6-1.

Casting doubt over the Ladbrokes odds is the site’s 24-1 odds for Israeli writer Amoz Oz. The perennial also-ran died in 2018, and the Nobel is not given posthumously.

Other authors often mentioned as contenders include Kenya’s Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Canadian poet Anne Carson and Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.

Ulitskaya, who is Jewish, was born in Davlekanovo in Bashkortostan and grew up in Moscow, where she studied and worked in genetics. She began publishing fiction in the early 1990s and reportedly now divides her time between Moscow and Israel.

According to a 2011 Tablet Magazine book review Ulitskaya “identifies culturally and ethnically as a Jew, and religiously as a Christian.”

Many of her works touch on Jewish or religious themes. Among her most popular in Russian is the historical novel “Daniel Stein, Interpreter,” based on the real life of Polish Jew Oswald Rufeisen who hid as a gentile during the Holocaust, converted to Christianity and moved to Israel as a priest.

Screen capture from video of the room at the Swedish Academy where the 2020 Nobel Prizes were being announced. (YouTube)

The prize is scheduled to be announced at 2 p.m. Israel time.

It is being awarded after several years of controversy and scandal for the world’s pre-eminent literary accolade.

In 2018 the award was postponed after sex abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy, the secretive body that chooses the winners, and sparked a mass exodus of members.

After the academy revamped itself in a bid to regain the trust of the Nobel Foundation, two laureates were named last year, with the 2018 prize going to Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk and the 2019 award to Austria’s Peter Handke.

Handke’s prize caused a storm of protest: a strong supporter of the Serbs during the 1990s Balkan wars, he has been called an apologist for Serbian war crimes. Several countries including Albania, Bosnia and Turkey boycotted the Nobel awards ceremony in protest, and a member of the committee that nominates candidates for the literature prize resigned.

This year the academy is likely to seek a more harmonious choice for the 10 million kronor (more than $1.1 million) prize.

The Academy has a history of throwing curve balls with its picks — as in 2016 when it honored US rock legend Bob Dylan.

Culture editor of Sweden’s biggest daily Bjorn Wiman suggested the winner will be someone suitably distant from any controversy.

“If the Academy knows what is good for them, they’ll choose Jamaica Kincaid” this year, he told AFP.

Writing about themes like colonialism, racism and gender, “her stance on various moral and political issues are absolutely worth listening to today,” Wiman said.

However, if last year’s choice is anything to go by, the Academy may also “dust off some old candidate” from years ago, “the same way they did with Handke.”

That could include such names as Peter Nadas of Hungary, Albania’s Ismael Kadare and Romania’s Mircea Cartarescu.

Some of the “usual suspects” for the prize are Joyce Carol Oates and Marilynne Robinson of the US, Israel’s David Grossman, and South Korean poet Ko Un.

Grossman, whose stories have been translated into dozens of languages, in 2018 won the Israel Prize for his work.

Israeli author David Grossman (Kobi Kalmanovitz)

The Swedish Academy often seems to shun bestselling mainstream authors, opting to shine its spotlight on lesser-known names.

“If you’re sitting on all this prize money to award, and you have all this attention that you can bestow, then of course you might think… that it’s more fun to give it to someone who’s not already in the limelight,” Madelaine Levy, literature critic at Svenska Dagbladet, told AFP.

She agreed Kincaid could be a potential winner, calling her an “unbelievably musical writer who’s easy to love.”

But at the end of the day, she noted, “almost all countries have some unbelievably strong writers worthy of a Nobel prize.

“The Academy has surprised everyone many, many times. They work in mysterious ways,” she concluded.

Normally, winners receive their Nobel from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, but the pandemic means it has been replaced with a televised ceremony showing the laureates receiving their awards in their home countries.

According to Anna Tullberg at public broadcaster Sveriges Radio, the unusual circumstances could be the perfect occasion to honor American novelist Thomas Pynchon, who famously shuns the limelight.

“A canceled award ceremony and a canceled banquet. Well there won’t be a better time to give the award to this very reclusive author,” Tullberg said.

David Haviland, member of the Nobel Committee for Physics, left, and Goran K. Hansson, Secretary General of the Academy of Sciences, announce the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics during a news conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in Stockholm, Sweden, October 6, 2020. (Fredrik Sandberg/TT via AP)

On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize for physiology and medicine to Jewish American Harvey J. Alter, American Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton for discovering the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus.

Tuesday’s prize for physics went to Roger Penrose of Britain, Reinhard Genzel of Germany — who are both of Jewish descent, and Andrea Ghez of the United States for their breakthroughs in understanding the mysteries of cosmic black holes.

The chemistry prize on Wednesday went to scientists behind a powerful gene-editing tool.

Still to come are prizes are for outstanding work in the fields of peace and economics.

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