Every year the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature , makes a lot of people mad.
The excitement peaks in late September, when the names of the latest candidates are whispered ear to ear among Stockholm’s literati-glitterati. Now that the Swedish model is ailing and Ingmar Bergman is dead, the Nobel is the one claim to high culture in a country that has taken to Britney Spears and Allsång på Skansen in a big way.
Yet behind the scenes of this most celebrated of prizes, now worth ten million kronor (about $1.5 million), there is a history of bungling.
The Nobel prizes were surrounded by contention from the beginning. Sweden was appalled that the peace prize was to be awarded by Norway. And while warring seldom taints the prizes in medicine and chemistry, the peace and literature prizes seem to owe their prestige more to controversy than to a perfect track record.
The British novelist Anthony Burgess, a non-laureate, once noted that the Swedish Academy had at least been consistent in making the wrong choice year after year.
Glaring in their absence are James Joyce and P.G. Wodehouse. The academy is far too earnest a body to appreciate the abundant jokes about copulation, defecation, masturbation and urination in Joyce’s Ulysses.
Plethora and humour don’t sit well in the hallowed chambers above the former Swedish Stock Exchange, where the academy holds deliberations before continuing on to a private dining room in an Old Town restaurant. Does this explain the inexplicable, such as a prize to Pearl Buck, a choice that could only have been after a surfeit of pea soup, pancakes and punch?
And what were they thinking when they bypassed Tolstoy and Proust, whose Remembrance of Things Past was the one novel of the 20th century that the century could not do without, while giving the prize to such literary luminaries as Rudolf Eucken, Carl Spitteler and Grazia Deledda? A particularly ugly disagreement was inspired by the prize to William Golding, “a little English phenomenon of no interest,” according to one member so angered by the decision that he broke the vow of secrecy.
Bickering is common, and disagreements often turn vicious. Sometimes the factional disputes that kept Norman Mailer, Jorge Luis Borges and Graham Greene from attaching FNPW (Famous Nobel Prize Winner) to their names cannot be contained. Horace Engdahl, Secretary of the Academy, has been attacked by his enemies in the kind of language commonly reserved for the likes of Kim Il Sung.
No one in the literary community will openly criticize the academy. This might be because they hand out stipends to Swedish writers, according to one insider who wishes to remain anonymous – she still has hopes of receiving one. Many gripe that the awards are based on ideology: they say the academy has become so politically correct that members don’t bother to read the books.
But Magnus Eriksson, literary critic for Svenska Dagbladet, strongly disagrees: “The academy is totally apolitical. Their decisions are well-founded and they consider literary merit only. If politics influenced them, V.S. Naipul would never have won.” He explains some of the non-laureates: “Joseph Conrad was never Nobelized because the academy was scrupulously following the instructions in Nobel’s will, that the recipient’s work should have an idealistic direction.” Conrad, like Thomas Hardy, was too dark, too pessimistic.
Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, the first weapon of mass destruction, thought himself a pacifist. His will instructed that the prize should go to idealists: “I would like to help dreamers, as they find it hard to get on in life.”
The prize is an earnest, edifying business. Like the country that awards it. This is no place for the rollicking abundance of a Burgess or the bleak pessimism of Joseph Conrad. It’s the middle way.
Magnus Eriksson mentions Cormac McCarthy as a candidate; Peter Lutherson, head of the high-brow publishing house Atlantis, thinks Don DeLillo is deserving; Carl Otto Werkelid, culture editor at Svenska Dagbladet tips Amos Oz as a possibility, but adds that it is harder than ever to guess. The secrecy this year is absolute.
More likely, the 2007 prizewinner will be a writer most of us have never read: Syrian poet Adonis and Korean poet Ko Un are two names that keep popping up.
Hot tips from Deep Throats:
Ko Un, Korean poet
Adonis, Syrian poet
Amos Oz, Israeli novelist
Don DeLillo, American novelist
Cormac McCarthy, American novelist
Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes, Latin American novelists, to share it
Not a snowball’s chance in hell: