Passions and politeness: how to award a Nobel

The Swedish Academy, which each year awards the Nobel Literature Prize, is an austere and sobre institute, but the lengthy and secret deliberations to pick a laureate often turn passionate and heated.

“Sometimes it is very intense. I tell you, it is not an unanimous body,” Horace Engdahl, the Academy’s permanent secretary told AFP in an interview.

This year’s Nobel Literature Prize will be announced on Thursday.

“You never know in advance what will happen. Inside the Academy, it is never certain who the winner will be until the very last moment,” he said.

“We stay polite, but it is passionate. Some strange things happen when you discuss literature,” he added with a smile.

Engdahl, who has headed the 18-member Academy since 1999, is at 58 one of the youngest members. Most of the members, who are named for life, are in their seventies or eighties.

And while he is one of the most respected figures in Sweden’s culture circles, he does not have the deciding vote over the choice of the Nobel laureate.

“In Sweden I am sometimes seen as a dictator who imposes his will on the Academy. This could not be further from the truth. I represent the Academy but I have only one voice. I cannot sway the others,” he said.

He has not always agreed with the Academy’s final choice, but he is bound by secrecy and discloses no names. But once the votes are cast and the decision is made, the members present a unanimous front.

Engdahl said he regretted that some writers had never won the Nobel but would only comment on those in the distant past: he lamented the fact that French poet Paul Valery was never honoured, and that Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges’ nomination was discarded.

Some believe that Borges, the author of “The Book of Sand”, was rejected because of political considerations, but Engdahl dismissed that theory.

“Politics is never discussed,” he stressed.

The Academy’s deliberations begin each year in February, when a committee of four or five members begin wading through the list of 200 or 300 writers nominated by other academies and literary institutes around the world.

Between April and June the list is cut down to about 20 names.

The committee tries to read the authors’ works in the original language as much as possible – its main languages are French, English, Russian and German – but otherwise translators are used.

“Sometimes we ask for a translation. They have to swear to secrecy,” he said, adding that the committee had in recent years resorted to a translator to understand the works of a poet.

“In poetry I think it is crucial. They came and read in front of us to explain the subtleties of the language,” he said.

Before the Academy breaks for the summer holidays, the committee proposes a short list of about five names to the other members – and all of the members are to then spend the summer poring over the five writers’ entire bodies of work.

“In theory,” said Engdahl, yet another smile creeping across his lips.

In September, lengthy discussions are held in the Academy’s plenary sessions and voting begins. Secret ballots are held until a winner is chosen by absolute majority, though usually no more than two rounds are necessary.

While the Academy officially has 18 members, only 15 will vote in this year’s selection: two members are boycotting the Academy because of disputes with their colleagues, and a deceased member has yet to be replaced.

The choice of the Nobel laureate is always a well-guarded secret up until the big announcement. Well, almost always.

Engdahl admitted it has almost become an obsession of his to put an end to leaks which in the past have “come from inside”.

“The rules are very strict and even stricter since I became the secretary,” he said.

“We are not allowed to discuss writers in public, to be seen with books in public. If we talk amongst us in public places, we must use codes names for the writers,” he said.

As a result, the 2005 laureate Harold Pinter was codenamed Harry Potter.

The secrecy of it all can’t help but fuel speculation in the media in the run-up to the announcement.

“It makes us smile when we see the speculation. They are always wrong,” he chuckled.

By AFP’s Francis Kohn