Reading list: The Nobel Prize in Literature of the 2010s

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The winner of literature’s most prestigious prize has always been tough to guess. Read up on some of the past winners’ works to see the quality of work awarded by the Nobel Committee. Photo by ALDRIN CALIMLIM

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The committee behind the world’s most prestigious literary award, the Nobel Prize in Literature, has more often than not snubbed popular authors in favor of writers who are decidedly lesser-known yet apparently more deserving, with more substantive things to say and less superficially stylized ways of saying them.

Each year, in the run-up to the announcement of the recipient of the award in October, speculations abound about who will get the prize, which is accorded to a living author in recognition of his or her body of work rather than any one title. Actually, given the shroud of secrecy that surrounds the nomination and selection process for the prize, to whom it’s ultimately awarded is anybody’s guess. Filipinos can only hope that it finally goes to F. Sionil José, the Philippine National Artist for Literature whose very own bookstore, Solidaridad Book Shop in Manila, has been visited by the Nobel laureates Günter Grass, Wole Soyinka, and Mario Vargas Llosa.

In any case, to non-recipients, there may be consolation in knowing that they’re in good company, considering that even the likes of Borges, Chekhov, Joyce, Nabokov, Proust, Tolstoy, and Woolf, for reasons political and arcane, weren’t given the award in its 115-year history.

In honor of this year’s winner (whoever it turns out to be — Editor's note: The American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan won the award "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."), here’s a sort of starter’s guide to the Nobel Prize in Literature featuring this decade’s awardees so far.

Transtroemer.jpg Photo by ANDREI ROMANENKO/CC BY-SA 3.0/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS  

Tomas Tranströmer

Like its sibling awards in other fields, the Nobel Prize in Literature is presented by the Swedish Academy. This all but explains why it has gone to a considerable number of Swedes: eight out of the 112 recipients of the prize. But when it was given in 2011 to the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer — “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality” — the conferment was far from comfortably based on nationality. A psychologist by profession, he was equally apt to plumb the inward distances of human nature and project depths of emotion onto the fabric of the cosmos. Tranströmer, who died last year, was the poet laureate of a wondrous world at constant risk of deletion.

Where to start: “For the Living and the Dead,” a collection that combines Tranströmer’s poetry and a memoir of his childhood in Sweden. Available in National Book Store and Powerbooks.

Mo Yan.jpg Photo by JOHANNES KOLFHAUS, GYMN. MARIENTHAL/CC BY-SA 3.0/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS  

Mo Yan

Mo Yan is renowned as a kind of Chinese composite of his fellow Nobel laureates William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez. This reputation is reinforced by the citation that accompanies his Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded in 2012, which notes that “with hallucinatory realism” he “merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.” In his novels and short stories, Mo brings his faculty for satire and reverie to bear on China’s troubled political history, a persistent move that predictably invites censorship while running counter to the meaning behind his name. Born Guan Moye, he adopted the pen name Mo Yan, which in Chinese means “don’t speak.”

Where to start: “The Garlic Ballads,” a fact-based novel about a Communist government that has poor farmers planting garlic they have difficulty selling. Available in Fully Booked, National Book Store, and Powerbooks.

Alice Munro.jpg Illustration by ANDREAS VARTDAL/CC BY-SA 2.5/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS  

Alice Munro

The Nobel Committee’s citations tend to be exercises in laudatory verbiage, so heavily reliant on highfalutin words supposedly suggestive of greatness that they might as well be the random remarks of someone reading off the pages of a thesaurus. But the laconic citation for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013 is a rare exception: It simply notes that the recipient, the Canadian writer Alice Munro, is a “master of the contemporary short story.” The uncharacteristically brief commendation is actually in keeping with Munro’s prose, whose understated elegance lends itself well to self-contained stories that manage to convey so much even when so little happens, and whose calmness equals that of the lakes her contemplative small-town characters are wont to look at.

Where to start: “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” a collection of short stories about women at various stages of life and states of haplessness, including the title story, which was adapted into the film "Hateship Loveship" with Kristen Wiig, and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which was made into the Oscar-nominated movie “Away from Her,” starring Julie Christie. Available in Fully Booked, National Book Store, and Powerbooks.

Modiano.jpg Photo by FRANKIE FOUGANTHIN/CC BY-SA 4.0/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS  

Patrick Modiano

For “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation,” the French novelist Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014. And the operative word is memory. Modiano’s works, which invariably recall the Nazi occupation of France, have characters taking trips down crisscrossing memory lanes likely to lead to dead ends and give rise to more questions than answers about their past lives and present identities. His books are ones to be read by the faint glimmer of a lamp, as befits the misty outlines of ostensible truths and half remembrances evoked in their words.

Where to start: “So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood,” a novel that subverts readers’ expectations of neo-noir fiction, about a solitary writer who is forced to investigate a decades-old murder. Available in Fully Booked.

Alexievich.jpg Photo by ELKE WETZIG/CC BY-SA 3.0/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS  

Svetlana Alexievich

The Belarusian nonfiction writer Svetlana Alexievich made history last year when she became the first journalist to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. And one would be hard pressed to think of a more interesting, never mind a more deserving, individual to hold this distinction. Awarded “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” Alexievich has an exceptional approach to investigative journalism that involves interviewing witnesses and weaving their testimonies into thematically coherent and emotionally resonant narratives. The results are haunting oral histories of some of the most crucially important events in Soviet and post-Soviet history.

Where to start:Voices from Chernobyl,” an account of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster in 1986, told through a series of monologues by survivors, first-responders, field experts, and relatives of the people counted among the accident’s death toll. Available in Fully Booked.