Alfred Nobel left a cross-eyed legacy: he invented dynamite and he founded
the Nobel Prizes. Nobel's talent for explosives combined smoothly with
a head for business—by the year of his death, 1896, he had ninety-three
dynamite factories in several different countries—but the greater
his success, the more it rankled his altruism. One commentator remarked
that the clause concerning the Peace Prize in Nobel's will "challenged
the humanitarian liberals among his personal friends to solve the problems
his discoveries had created." Nobel was a melancholic, discontented
man, with problems of his own. He never married or had successful relations
with women. To a request from a relative for a contribution to a family
history, he responded ironically: "Greatest sin: Does not worship
Mammon. Important events in his life: None." As a postscript,
Nobel suggested that he "should have been strangled by a humanitarian
doctor when he made his screeching entrance into the world."
Born into a family of Swedish engineers and inventors in 1833, Nobel
was raised partly in Stockholm and partly in St. Petersburg. Despite
having had only one year of formal schooling, he was fluent in several
languages. He patented "Nobels Extradynamit" in 1867, and his fortune
increased as the railways expanded across Europe and dynamite became
popular in warfare. An "important event" took place in 1864, when Nobel's
younger brother was blown to pieces at one of the factories. According
to some accounts, another occurred in 1888. Aged fifty-five and now
living in Paris ("every mongrel stinks of culture here," was his characteristic
stamp of approval), Nobel read of his own death in a French newspaper.
In fact, it was his brother Ludwig who had died, but a reporter got
the names confused and Alfred learned that he would be remembered as
a "merchant of death," a "dynamite king," a businessman who had made
his fortune from blowing things (and people) up.
A first will was made in 1893, with plans for prizes in chemistry,
physics, medicine and peace (the award for economics was introduced
in the 1960s). Only in a revised, final testament drawn up in 1895 did
Nobel stipulate that one of the awards should be given to "the person
who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding
work of an idealistic tendency." It was not exactly an afterthought,
but nor was it a priority. He died the following year, and the first
round of Nobel Prizes was distributed at the beginning of the new century,
Nobel's wretched personal life seems to conceal few secrets, but there
was one little romantic matter that he kept largely confidential: he
was a writer himself. "The famous chemist and experimenter in explosives
was at heart a poet," insisted a pair of those personal friends charged
with deflecting attention from his innovations in weaponry. To call
him a poet is an exaggeration, but Nobel produced enough, in several
genres, to suggest that he had serious literary intentions. He wrote
fiction in middle life and drama in his last years, but his youthful
efforts were in verse—a heavily shod Miltonic blank verse, written
in English. None of it was published in Nobel's lifetime, and most was
destroyed at the time of his death by the circumspect executors, but
the poetry that survives reveals a deep dejection at the heart of the
To dream of immortality, till Time
O'er empty visions draws the closing veil
And a new life sets in—the life of worms,
Those hungry plunderers of the human breast.
These lines, part of a long autobiographical poem, were written when
Nobel was eighteen, and suggest that his idealism—"To dream of
immortality"—like his discontent, started early. The poem veers
towards self-pity in its depiction of a life hanging by threads, which
survives only to mature into joylessness: "My cradle looked a deathbed,
and for years / A mother watched with ever anxious care"…"Begun
in pain, in deeper torture ended, / This breathing clay, what business
has it here?" and so on. Nobel took his puerile poetry seriously enough
to show it to friends in later life, doubtless in hope of a positive
appraisal (which it received). It is heartfelt stuff and displays a
remarkable command of English, but the high-flown diction is kept aloft
less by its own energy than by poetical gas.
The fiction was written in Swedish. In an unfinished novel, "Brothers
and Sisters," sections of which were published in an official biography
(Schück and Sohlman, 1929), the gloomy introspection of the verse
has been replaced by "ideas"; yet an identical theme appears to have
inspired the writer in both genres. "You say I am a riddle—it
may be," the long, untitled poem begins, "For all of us are riddles
unexplained." In "Brothers and Sisters," lengthy discussions are centered
on the same ponderous thought: "We are certainly surrounded by an eternal
riddle; there are mysteries that we can never solve," etc. The verse
dramas based on classical models—which he wrote in his last years,
and which he paid to have published shortly before his death—are
no more inspiring.
Nobel's own literature is essentially, profoundly, middlebrow. And
it was his taste which dominated at least the first three decades of
literature prizes—to an extent that makes it surprising that the
award not only survived but became "the gold standard against which
all other awards are measured," to borrow a phrase from The New York
Times of 1983. Like most literary enthusiasts, Nobel was eventually
willing to let writers of genuine talent do the work for him; unlike
most, he was in a position to reward those others—the monetary
aspect of all the Nobel Prizes has done much to confirm their status
as the "gold standard"—and he intended to enrich only authors
of like mind. The literature prize was reserved for writers who exhibited
his preferred "idealistic tendency." Nobel elected the Swedish Academy
to carry out his wishes (the science, economics and peace prizes are
judged by other institutions), and its members debated at length the
meaning of the stipulation and tried to apply it to the candidates.
(They are debating it still: the Nobel website currently has an essay
on the interpretation of the phrase, by the Academy's former permanent
secretary, Sture Allén.) Was it to be taken as writing that, like
scientific work, had a combined humanitarian and constructive purpose?
Sture Allén interprets Nobel's phrase as "literary excellence…in
a direction towards an ideal," which is nothing if not broad-based.
In any case, Nobel wished to be seen to deplore the kind of pessimism
that had soured his own life. Man may be food for plundering worms,
but mankind must light up the darkness with hope—or Hope, as it
more loftily goes in the poem. Thoughts that "lift us to the spheres"
might ensnare a Nobel Prize in literature, never "petty wants to chain
us to the earth." The character Morena in "Brothers and Sisters" could
be speaking for Nobel himself when he says: "Clever sophists are the
most dangerous men there are, for they rob their fellow men of peace,
not only in this, but also in a future world." It was the desire to
avoid this, and the determination to shun the "experimental morality"
of the likes of Zola, whom Nobel particularly reviled, that threw up
the bewildering early choices of the Nobel Committee, so obscure as
to appear now wilfully blind. They were not the choices of Nobel himself,
of course, but of the members of the Swedish Academy trying to guess
what the repentant merchant of death would like.
The literature prize is customarily announced at noon on the second
Thursday in October. The Nobel Committee submits to the full Swedish
Academy a shortlist of candidates, numbering about twenty. The Academy
then enters into deliberations to reduce the shortlist to five. The
winner is finally elected by secret ballot; for the election to be valid,
a candidate must gain more than half the votes cast. The name is made
known to the press in the Grand Hall of the Academy, housed in the palatial
buildings of the former Stockholm Stock Exchange. All other details,
including the remaining names on the shortlist, are kept confidential.
The initial stage of selecting the winner is broadly democratic. During
the autumn of the previous year, the Nobel Committee, composed of half-a-dozen
members of the Academy, sends out invitations to several hundred professors
of literature and languages, presidents of authors' organizations, Nobel
laureates, members of sister academies (the only other two, besides
the Swedish, are in France and Spain), and other representative literary
people. The replies will contain about a hundred different names. According
to Lars Gyllestein, a former Chair of the Nobel Committee and a historian
of the literature prize, "only a few are new names which have not been
proposed before." Many names are sent in year after year. "It is very
unusual for anyone who has been proposed for the first time to win the
prize," writes Gyllestein.
Some writers have won because they had strong supporters inside the
Academy; others have faced over-my-dead-body opposition at the decisive
stage. Arthur Lundkvist, a prominent Academician, championed Pablo Neruda,
whom he also translated, and vigorously opposed Graham Greene. Neruda
won in 1971, while Greene never received the prize, despite being nominated
repeatedly. When William Golding won in 1983, Lundkvist took the unprecedented
step of issuing a public denouncement, calling Golding "a little English
phenomenon of no special interest." There were mutterings of disapproval,
but Lundkvist remained a sitting member of the Academy (which, formally,
it is impossible to leave). One of those who has come closest to winning
without having done so is Norman Mailer. When Mailer opened The Prisoner
of Sex in 1971 with an account of his high expectations—his
secretary is made aware of every step in his itinerary and given contact
telephone numbers—even admirers were apt to put it down as another
piece of clowning on the part of the fictional character, "Mailer."
But the veteran Academician Knut Ahnlund is on record as saying (The
New Yorker, October 5, 1998): "I argued so many times for him."
Not enough, though, and it is unlikely that the post-Ancient Evenings,
post-Tough Guys Don't Dance Mailer is going to hear from Stockholm.
With so much prestige and money at stake, it is not surprising that
the Swedish Academy has been the scene of some ungentlemanly bickering
and brawling. When the present permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl,
was first nominated to the Academy in 1997 (new members may be nominated
only to replace the dead), he was subject to what he has called "vicious,
unrestrained" attacks on him in the press, because of his professional
approach to literature. Engdahl is an academic who specializes in post-structuralism.
The main attacker was his fellow Academician Ahnlund, who has also referred
to the previous permanent secretary, Sture Allén, a computer linguist,
as "an intellectual accountant."
In 1989, the Swedish Academy was the stage for what counts as a public
scandal in this secretive world, when two members quit over the way
in which the Academy responded to the fatwa imposed on Salman
Rushdie. A majority decided that the Academy should not put its name
to a petition in support of Rushdie, alleging a traditional "non-political
stance." Instead, it issued a statement condemning "all attempts to
stifle freedom of expression."
It is easy to make merry with the game of Great Writers Who Were Passed
Over, in discussions of the Nobel. Many writers who have come to be
seen as giants in twentieth-century literature, such as Proust or Joyce,
were not regarded that way during their lifetimes (the prize cannot
be awarded posthumously). Others, such as Kafka, were barely published.
Some of the modernist innovators of the early part of the century—T.
S. Eliot, William Faulkner—were properly honored in their seniority.
No committee can be expected to please everybody, not even all its own
members, and for every onlooker who tut-tuts over the omission of Graham
Greene, there is another of the view that he was just a writer of elevated
thrillers (and yet another who has never read Greene but holds the strongest
views of all). One thing on which opinion appears to be united, however,
is that the early choices of the Swedish Academy were eccentric, and
none more so than the first.
The 1901 award to the French "Parnassian" poet Sully Prudhomme caused
embarrassment in the Swedish literary world even at the time. The Parnassians
were a loosely constituted group, active in Paris from the 1860s onwards,
who addressed exotic, non-political themes in strictly formal verse.
One of their leading practitioners has been light-heartedly praised
(by Rimbaud's most recent biographer, Graham Robb) for writing "beautifully
calculated poems of…a haunting dullness." Forty-two authors and
artists signed an open letter denouncing the choice of Sully Prudhomme
and protesting the neglect of Tolstoy, still alive and writing—nothing
if not idealistically—on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana. The Academy
defended itself by saying that Tolstoy could not have been awarded the
prize since he had not been nominated by an official body, as was the
requirement. Anders Osterling, a former permanent secretary, has explained
that Sully Prudhomme, on the other hand, "had been proposed by a large
number of prominent members of the French Academy, and to follow their
advice was apparently regarded as a matter of courtesy." As one Academy
curtsied before another, therefore, literary history began one of its
extended jokes: the first twenty years of the Nobel Prize. Had the great
wave of nineteenth-century French poetry, bearing Baudelaire, Verlaine,
Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Laforgue, survived into the next, as conceivably
it might have done, it is unlikely that any of them would have been
chosen before the Parnassian Sully Prudhomm (it was at a recital by
leading Parnassians in Paris that Rimbaud raucously added "Merde!" to
the end of every line). Nobel required his literature to spout an improving
The Swedish Academy had the opportunity to set matters right by awarding
the prize to Tolstoy in 1902, by which time he had been nominated in
due form. But the Academy's eminence, Carl af Wirsen, who dominated
the prize in its first years, would not lose face. He issued a statement
in which, speaking on the behalf of the Academy, he criticized Tolstoy
for having "condemned all forms of civilization," adding "one feels
dubious." The 1902 Nobel went to the German historian Theodor Mommsen
So it continued, with one or two imaginative exceptions (Kipling in
1907, Knut Hamsun in 1920), for the next two decades. Zola was ignored
out of respect for Nobel's personal taste; Rilke, Thomas Hardy and Henry
James were passed over, while Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Henryk
Sienkiewicz, Giosuè Carducci, R. C. Eucken, Selma Largerlöf,
and Paule Heyse were all given the prize (worth a substantial $40,000)
within its first decade. Karl Gjellerup, Henrik Pontoppidan and other
now forgotten brightnesses of the turn of the century followed.
The Academy had a bias towards Scandinavian writers in those years,
perhaps not unnaturally, but dutiful adherence to the "idealistic tendency"
could mean ignoring the talent on the doorstep, too. The Spanish dramatist
José de Echegaray Y Eizaguirre won in 1904, while Ibsen and Strindberg
were dismissed. Strindberg had also made himself unpopular with the
powerful permanent secretary Wirsen, first by participating in the protest
over Tolstoy and later by satirizing Wirsen in a book.
It was only when strict reliance on the letter of the will was relaxed
that the Nobel Prize appeared to be running at pace with the movement
in modern literature. The change began around the 1920s and 30s (Thomas
Mann won in 1929, Luigi Pirandello in 1934, Eugene O'Neill in 1936),
and was given a hefty jolt by the Second World War. In 1946, Hermann
Hesse, a novelist who was to become a hip cult favorite in the 1960s,
was chosen; the next year the prize went to André Gide, the year
after that to Eliot, and in 1949 to Faulkner. The successive selection
of, perhaps, America's greatest twentieth-century poet and novelist
(bearing in mind that Eliot was by then a naturalized British citizen)
might be seen as compensation for a mix of neglect and eccentricity
in earlier times. (No American won the prize for almost the first thirty
years, and then it went to Sinclair Lewis; the award to Pearl Buck in
1938 is generally seen as one of the oddest of all Nobel Prizes.) With
Eliot especially, the literature prize appears to have slipped the "idealistic"
yoke; if the ghost of Nobel objected—how intensely he would have
disliked the "riddles" of the sublimely pessimistic poem "The Hollow
Men"—then the Academy could plead that it was the Eliot of Four
Quartets, the churchly Eliot, who was being honoured, not the Eliot
of "Unreal city /…I had not thought death had undone so many."
It scarcely amounts to an original observation to say that by the late
1940s the days when the "idealistic tendency" was regarded as essential
to literature were at an end. But they were already gone by 1901. That
was the year in which Queen Victoria died, having outlived the era named
after her; it was the year when Wilhelm Kostrowitzky became "Apollinaire,"
a herald of new, "relativist" artistic practices based on close acquaintanceship
with modern painters. Long before Nobel's death, the latter, cultured
mongrels that they were, had ditched idealism as an inappropriate agent
in art. A few years after the first prizes were distributed, Ezra Pound
would arrive in London with a missionary purpose to cast out old devils
of statement. The question provoked by modernist literature was already
contemporary: not only (if at all) "What is the story?" but "Why did
you tell it that way?" No modernist could utter the phrase "idealistic
tendency" without ironic ambivalence (come to think of it, ironic ambivalence
was what replaced the tendency).
It took the Swedish Academy most of the first half of the twentieth
century to catch up, but catch up it did. The upheavals of the Second
World War had something to do with it. Nobel's projection had occasionally
rewarded a dubious idealism: two future Nazi sympathizers received the
prize (the Swede Verner von Heidenstam, 1916, and the Norwegian Knut
Hamsun, 1920), as well as a number of Europeans with a "strong commitment
to German culture" (the phrase was used specifically of the 1917 recipient,
Karl Gjellerup). It is not a coincidence that Hermann Hesse, the first
winner after the end of the war, was a long-term exile from Hitler's
Germany. The official citation to Eliot stated that he had "the ability
to cut into the consciousness of our own generation with the sharpness
of a diamond." The cliché might have brought a frown to Eliot's
discreet brow, but the notion of the "consciousness" of a generation,
as represented by the author of "The Waste Land," was not the sort of
thing that had come naturally to earlier members of the Swedish Academy.
The Nobel Prize has been declined on only two occasions, although there
have been waverers. George Bernard Shaw, when selected in 1925, signalled
a conditional acceptance. However, he wrote to a friend: "I cannot persuade
myself to accept the money." Shaw had a general dislike of prizes, and
had previously called the Nobel a lottery. What's more, the munitions
millionaire Andrew Undershaft, in his play Major Barbara (1905),
was thought to be partly modelled on Nobel the dynamite king. Nevertheless,
the Academy was determined to give it to him. When Shaw offered to accept
the prize but not the money, it was pointed out that the two could not
be separated, and so Shaw created the Anglo-Swedish Literary Foundation,
to aid the translation into English of classical Swedish literature
(it still exists, in redefined form).
In 1958, Boris Pasternak, having first gladly accepted, was forced
to withdraw because of pressure from the Soviet government, and was
reduced to pleading with Krushchev not to expel him from his native
land. The affair damaged Pasternak's health and probably contributed
to his death in 1960. The tension is etched into a poem he left behind,
called "Nobel Prize":
I'm caught like a beast in a trap.
Somewhere there is freedom, light, people.
But the hunt is after me
and there is no way out.
The sole wholehearted refusal in the history of the Nobel Prize came
half-a-dozen years later. On October 14, 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre read
in Le Figaro littéraire that the Swedish Academy had him
lined up for that year's prize. In fact, the official announcement was
not due to be made until the following week; but however it came about,
the prediction proved to be accurate. Sartre declined the honor immediately,
and with genuine courtesy. He first wrote personally to the secretary
of the Academy—"I cannot and do not want to, not in 1964 or ever,
accept this great distinction"—and then dictated a statement to
a Swedish journalist, in which he said that he had always turned down
"official distinctions" in the past, out of a conviction that "the writer
must not allow himself to be transformed by institutions." Sartre had
previously declined the highest official accolade his country could
bestow on him, the Légion d'honneur (it is a mystery why this committed
anti-establishment radical was offered it), as well as a professorial
chair at the Collège de France. His refusal of the Nobel, he said,
was not "an improvised act," but the result of a thought-out position
on honors and awards. Here was idealism in action, surely, of which
even Nobel might have approved? Sartre was turning down a fortune, and
modestly putting forward a high-minded reason for doing so. He simply
wished to remain free. The Swedish Academy could not see things his
way, however. It responded through tight lips—"The fact that he
is declining does not alter in the least the validity of the nomination"—and
went ahead with the prize-giving ceremony in Stockholm, in the absence
of a winning head to anoint.
The will stated that "in awarding the prizes no consideration shall
be given to the nationality of the candidates." It was Nobel's wish
that "the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian
or not." In literature, unlike the precise sciences (and the thoroughly
imprecise one, "peace"), there was an obstacle: language. It was easy
to find committee members who read English, French, German, Spanish;
less so to accommodate Chinese or Modern Greek or Arabic. Translations,
especially from non-Latin or non-Germanic languages, could convey only
the surface appearance of a writer's work. How was the Nobel Committee
to know whether a poet was a master in his own language, or if his translator
had misrepresented him (perhaps by improvement)? An accompanying consideration
was that Asian and African forms of literature may be only slackly comparable
to those in the West. These are problems which the Committee still faces,
but in earlier times they appeared insurmountable, and for sixty years
or more the prize was practically a Western preserve.
On the rare occasions when non-Western writers were invited to Stockholm,
it was, in a mutually acknowledged term, as "strangers." The 1945 prize
was awarded to the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, the first writer from
Latin America to be chosen (and the fifth woman), described in a history
sponsored by the Academy as "a stranger from afar with a half-Indian
appearance." The only non-white writer to come before her was the Bengali
poet Rabindranath Tagore, who won in 1913. Born in Calcutta and educated
partly in England, Tagore had translated his own work into English,
making it accessible to the members of the Committee. It is lyrical
and sweet, full of moonlight and young love, a "maiden" who might modestly
shade "the timid flame of her lamp," and birdsong which makes "the heart
dance with gladness"—in other words, it is miles away from the
explosion that was about to occur in English poetry. The Swedish Academy
stressed his Christian links, and Tagore showed that he appreciated
the effort by emphasizing in his acceptance telegram "the breadth of
understanding which has…made a stranger a brother."
The Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata won in 1968, and the dimensions
of the prize have continued to expand ever since. The "idealistic tendency"
persists as the flimsiest of criteria (it was raised in the presentation
to Nadine Gordimer in 1991), giving way to an increasing use of the
postmodern password "diversity" instead. A Yiddish writer won in 1978
(Singer), the first African in 1986 (Soyinka), an Afro-Caribbean in
1992 (Walcott), followed immediately by an African American (Toni Morrison).
In 2000, Gao Xingjian became the first Chinese author to win the prize.
The choice did not please the Beijing government—which is likely
to have been partly the point. In spite of what it claimed in taking
its stance over the Rushdie affair, the Swedish Academy has made many
selections which seem intended to support politically engaged writers,
though not of one particular stripe, in the past thirty years. The anti-Marxist
Solzhenitsyn in 1970 was counterbalanced by the Marxist Neruda in 1971.
Since then there have been the Polish exile Milosz (1980), the veteran
of Nigerian prisons Soyinka, the former Soviet "vagabond" Brodsky (1987),
and then Gordimer, Morrison, Szymborska (1996), Fo (1997), Grass (1999),
and the Chinese exile Gao, all of them embattled in one way or another.
In one of its most discreditable decisions, in 1965, the Nobel Committee
chose Mikhail Sholokhov, a Soviet writer whose voice had been among
those raised against Pasternak. It is widely believed in Russian literary
circles today that Sholokhov did not single-handedly write the novel
which did most to earn him the honor, And Quiet Flows the Don.
This drift towards political engagement has brought with it accusations
that the Academy is too much influenced by extra-literary criteria.
It is a legitimate complaint, but it should be set beside a response
to Tagore's prize, in The New York Times in November 1913. The
American reading public was said to be surprised that Western writers
had been passed over in favour of a "Hindu bard," though disappointment
was mitigated by recognition that the bard had had a Western education,
and enough sense to translate his poems into "good sound English" before
expecting anyone to read them. Tagore, "if not exactly one of us, is,
as an Aryan, a distant relation of all white folk." (This item appeared
in "Topics of the Times"; the paper also ran a more serious article
on Tagore's award.)
Public perception of the Nobel Prize in literature has changed since
then, but is still characterized by a split. On the one hand, there
is general acceptance that it is indeed "the gold standard" against
which other awards are measured; on the other, the constant objection
is made that the annual awards are unrepresentative of the best in contemporary
literature. It seems that these contradictory views are perpetually
in tandem—the Nobel will never do its job properly, yet will not
be dislodged from its pre-eminent position. That the Nobel survived
its early misguided selections can be put down to two things: there
is the prestige of the associated science prizes, and then there is
the money. The latter—this year's Nobel Prize laureate will receive
about $1,000,000—surely accounts for the fact that there have
not been more refusals, according to the principles set down by Sartre.
Many a hard-working writer, transformed by the institution, has seen
his or her pen dry up in the warmer climate of fame and luxury. "Greatest
sin: Does not worship Mammon." The same is probably true of most
of the winners. But Sartre's decision to decline represents the apotheosis
of Alfred Nobel's "idealistic tendency."
James Campbell works for the Times Literary Supplement.
His new book, This Is the Beat Generation, will be published