First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

The Nobel Prize in Literature: A controversial and cont...



The Nobel Prize in Literature: A controversial and contested pedigree

With the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature due to be announced on Thursday 7 October, The Daily Maverick takes a look back at the history of the award. Turns out that this most prestigious honour, this accolade for which almost every novelist, poet and playwright strives, is less than perfectly judged. From the giant names that have been overlooked to the consistent charges of bias, the Swedish Academy has a lot to answer for. By KEVIN BLOOM.

If the debate is worth having, there’s only one place to start: the strongest historical argument against the worth of the Nobel Prize in Literature was Jean-Paul Sartre’s refusal, in 1964, to accept it. Sartre wasn’t the first person to refuse the prize – six years earlier, Boris Pasternak had declined on the basis that the Soviet Union would punish him if he left his country to attend the award ceremony – but he was the only writer whose rebuff was based on a long-standing personal philosophy. Sartre had a certain conception of what he called the “writer’s enterprise,” and in a letter to the press explaining his decision he outlined his beliefs: “A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own – that is, the written word. All the honours he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself ‘Jean-Paul Sartre’ it is not the same thing as if I sign myself ‘Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner’.”  

The Swedish Academy might have known that Sartre would reject their recognition of his work; he’d refused membership of the Legion of Honour in 1945, and despite the urging of his friends and colleagues had never sought admission to the College de France. Still, due to the irrevocability of their choice, the Academy had no option but to go ahead with the ceremony anyway. At the awkward 1964 banquet, the rector of the Caroline Institute attempted to salvage the situation in his address: “Mr Sartre found himself unable to accept this year’s prize in literature,” he said. “There is always discussion about this prize, which everyone considers himself capable of judging, or which he does not understand and consequently criticises. But I believe that Nobel would have had a great understanding of this year’s choice.”

What the rector was referring to, of course, were the founding principles of Alfred Nobel – the armaments manufacturer and inventor of dynamite who had the strange experience of reading his own obituary in a newspaper (“The merchant of death is dead,” the headline read, although it was in fact Alfred’s brother who had died) and so left his vast fortune tune to the creation of a series of prizes for those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind”. According to Nobel’s will, the prizes were to be awarded annually in the fields of physics, chemistry, peace, physiology or medicine, and literature.

The literature prize, from the year of inception, was the most controversial. In 1901, when Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen won in physics for his discovery of the X-ray and Jacobus van’t Hoff won in chemistry for his contribution to chemical thermodynamics, the Victorian poet Sully Prudhomme was considered a more worthy choice than the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Prudhomme, in case you’ve never heard of him, was a Frenchman who’d trained as an engineer and later in life attempted to create something called “scientific poetry”. At the time of the announcement, a group of 42 Swedish writers, artists and literary critics felt that the Academy had chosen the wrong man, and in a public protest made their preference for Tolstoy known. It didn’t help, because the decision – as mentioned – was irrevocable. Today, while Röntgen is considered the father of diagnostic radiology and Van’t Hoff one of the founders of physical chemistry, Prudhomme is mostly forgotten and hardly read.

Needless to say, Tolstoy’s masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina are still universally recognised as supreme examples of realist fiction, and thousands of critics and academics point to the former as the greatest novel ever written. But Tolstoy never won the Nobel Prize in Literature – from 1902 until his death in 1910 the Swedish Academy continued to pick writers whose work would leave no lasting legacy, the sole exception being Rudyard Kipling, who won in 1907 (Kipling was 42-years-old when he was awarded the prize, and remains the youngest winner ever). Christian Matthias Theodor Mommse (1902), Bjornstjerne Martinus Bjornson (1903), Frederic Mistral and Jose Echegaray y Eizaguirre (1904), Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905), Giosue Carducci (1906), Rudolf Christoph Eucken (1908), Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlof (1909), Paul Johann Ludwig Heyse (1910) – if these writers are read at all today, it’s seldom outside the university and almost never outside their home countries.

It wouldn’t be until 1925, when the Irishman George Bernard Shaw won the prize, that the Swedish Academy would make a decision that would stand the test of time. Granted, Romain Rolland (1915), Knut Pedersen Hamsen (1920), Anatole France (1921) and William Butler Yeats (1923) are today highly regarded, but their impact has lessened over the years, their place in the popular imagination (if not exactly in the Canon) has faded as literature has moved on. Shaw’s Pygmalion, on the other hand, has become a mainstay of contemporary culture – the play’s conversion into the musical My Fair Lady brought him enduring worldwide fame – and the adjective “Shavian” has entered the English language as a word that describes a very specific type of wit. It’s not incidental either that Shaw, like Sartre some 40 years later, wanted to refuse the prize: he had no desire for public honours, but his wife made him accept it as a tribute to Ireland.

Which brings us to the greatest Irishman, and next to Tolstoy the greatest writer of the modern era, to have been snubbed by the Swedish Academy. Like Tolstoy, James Joyce is a mistake the Nobel committee will never live down. His work influenced writers from Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov to Jorge Luis Borges and John Updike, and his novels Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man have been ranked first and third respectively in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Outside of literature, Joyce’s influence has been felt in fields as diverse as psychoanalysis – Jacques Lacan used the novelist’s work to explain his theory of symptoms – and particle physics – the word “quark” is thought to come from a phrase in Finnegan’s Wake, “Three Quarks for Muster Mark”. Bloomsday, the day on which the novel Ulysses took place in 1904, is celebrated around the world on 16 June.

Nobody knows why the Swedish Academy ignored such an obvious giant; correspondence, as they say, was not entered into. Fortunately, as far as legacy was concerned, after World War II they appeared to find their stride. Thomas Mann, who won in 1929, set the tone for a string of inspired choices in the post-war years. Herman Hesse (1946), Andre Gide (1947), TS Eliot (1948), William Faulkner (1949), and Bertrand Russell (1950) – now here were names that would bestow on the Nobel Prize in Literature the lustre its founder had in mind. The ensuing decades, although there were the inevitable no-namers, added to the award’s prestige in Ernest Hemingway (1954), Albert Camus (1957), John Steinbeck (1962), the refusing Sartre (1964), the Joycean prodigy Samuel Beckett (1969), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1970), Pablo Neruda (1971), Heinrich Boll (1972), and Saul Bellow (1976).

By this point, however, the missing ingredient in the list of winners had begun to appear embarrassingly obvious – the members of the Swedish Academy were regularly overlooking half the planet, the half who weren’t men, and the feminist movement that had just arisen in America meant they could no longer pretend. The statistics are as follows: from 1901, when Prudhomme got his medal, there have been 106 winners; the prize was not awarded on seven occasions and has been shared between two individuals four times; since Selma Lagerlof won in 1909, only another 11 women have been named Nobel literature laureates, the last being Herta Muller in 2009.

It’s telling that six of those women have won in the last 20 years – South Africa’s first laureate Nadine Gordimer (1991), the African-American icon Toni Morrison (1993), the Polish poet and essayist Wislawa Szymborska (1996), the Austrian playwright and novelist Elfriede Jelinek (2004), the Iranian-born British writer Doris Lessing, who grew up in the former Rhodesia and at 88 was the oldest person to win the prize (2007), and the abovementioned German novelist Muller. While it’s not quite gender equality yet, it is getting better.

But women writers have not been the only constituency complaining that the decisions of the Swedish Academy are biased. Lately, American writers have started to feel scorned too, and their suspicions were confirmed in 2008 when a key Nobel figure announced that American literature is “too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the centre of the literary world”. It was an interesting and provocative statement, one that no doubt had its supporters, and yet it should probably be mitigated by a couple of facts. First, the Swedish Academy comprises 18 “Swedish” writers, literary critics and scholars, meaning there are no members of the judging committee from anywhere outside Europe. Second, if Alfred Nobel’s own criterion of “greatest benefit to mankind” is to mean anything, it must at some point mean “benefit to the greatest number of people” – a Hungarian Nobel laureate like Imre Kertesz, for example, can’t hope to reach as many readers as an American novelist like Jonathan Franzen, whose latest work is the biggest sensation world literature has seen in a generation.

Not that sales should be a decisive factor in the Academy’s mysterious processes, just that it’s kind of disingenuous to argue that a literature capable of sweeping the English-speaking world in a matter of weeks is a literature that’s insular and ignorant. Of course, unlike the Booker Prize, the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded for a lifetime’s work, and here the American novelist Cormac McCarthy would seem to fit the bill – his ten novels have earned him a reputation as a supremely important stylist and humanist, and the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom called his Blood Meridian “the greatest single book since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying”.

As of this writing, with about 24 hours to go until the 2010 winner is announced, McCarthy is the favourite to win at British bookmakers Ladbrokes, at odds of 5-to-2. Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o is second-favourite at 7-to-2, but if the Americans think that the Swedish Academy has been unkind to them, they should consider themselves lucky they’re not African. In the award’s history, the prize has been awarded to a writer from the African continent only four times – to Wole Soyinka in 1986, Naguib Mahfouz in 1988, Gordimer in 1991, and JM Coetzee in 2003. There is no Ben Okri on the list, and no Chinua Achebe.

The words of Sartre in 1964, printed in Le Figaro and paraphrased by the Nobel Foundation in an announcement made after he rejected the prize, are important in this regard: “Among his objective reasons, Mr Sartre listed his belief that interchange between East and West must take place between men and between cultures without the intervention of institutions. Furthermore, since the conferment of past prizes did not, in his opinion, represent equally writers of all ideologies and nations, he felt that his acceptance might be undesirably and unjustly interpreted.”

It’s almost certain that the winner in 2010 will not follow Sartre’s example. He or she will accept the prize with humility and gratitude; the Nobel, for all its faults, remains the most prestigious award a writer can get, and that’s as it should be. Still, if McCarthy or Wa Thiong’o don’t win, if it goes once again to an obscure European male who nobody reads outside his own country – someone like France’s Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, who won in 2008 (Jean-Marie who?) – it won’t be a surprise. Also, it bears remembering that hardly any of the winners have gone on to write masterpieces after taking home the medal, Gordimer and Coetzee included. DM

Read more: The official list of Nobel literature laureates, John-Paul Sartre’s explanation for his refusal of the award, in the New York Review of Books and paraphrased by the Nobel Foundation.

Photo: A general view of the Nobel award ceremony in the Concert Hall of Stockholm December 10, 2008. The Nobel Prize is the first international award given yearly since 1901 for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. In 1968, the Sveriges Riksbank (Bank of Sweden) instituted the Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prize. Each prize consists of a medal, personal diploma, and prize amount. REUTERS/Bob Strong


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted