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Writing and Winning — The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik

Ngugi wa Thiong' o? Juan Goytisolo? Adonis? Over the past several weeks, some version of this list was muttered, usually to a silent spouse in the middle of the night, by insomniac writers contemplating another Nobel Prize about to go where it shouldn't; i.e. to someone other than themselves. (Not that winning puts out the competitive fires. Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel for literature in 1976, was said to ahve grown wistful every October after that, because you can win it only once.) Nor is the muttering restricted to the papabili who make the short list; pretty much every living writer with a word processor thinks that he or she has a shot at wining. (Edmucd Wilson reports that our own James Thurber longed for it to go, just once, to a humorist; predictably, he never got anywhere near the podium.)

When this year's prize was announced, last Thursday, it went to a writer, who, if not a North American (again), is at least familiar to North Americans: the Peruvian novelist and man of letters Mario Vargas Llosa. So all hair Vargas Llosa, whom even his nosier left-wing critics have to regard as exactly the kind of writer the prize ought to go to: one with a host of well-regarded novels ("The Time of the Hero," "Conversation in the Cathedral," the screen-adapted "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," "The Feast of the Goat") and a sense of social responsibility (he ran seriously for, and lost badly, the Presidency of Peru), not to mention a lively personal life that includes once punching out another future laureate with an equally impressive triple-barrelled moniker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, reportedly over something to do with Mrs. Vargas Llosa. The Nobel thus not only crowns a career but provides the basis for a fine future Javier Bardem/Antonio Banderas movie. ("The only thing they cared for more than Latin American epic fiction was ... the honor of a woman.")

What this year's prize really shows is that prizes, like people, have a DNA of their own

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