The Nobel is literature's most glittering and lucrative prize. But how and why the Laureate is chosen remains a mystery shrouded in controvers y, gossip and paranoia
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EACH autumn, on a Thursday morning in Stockholm, a strange ritual takes place. In an elegant 18th-century room, around a long table, under a high chandelier, before a bust of King Gustav III, a dozen or so men and women each write down a name on a piece of paper. The pieces of paper are then collected in a stop (an antique silver tankard or drinking mug), and the names are totted up. At 1pm exactly, the secretary or delegate of these men and women leaves the room, walks through a grand hall (more busts and chandeliers), and arrives in his office, where a number of journalists have gathered. He reads to them the name that has recurred most often on those pieces of paper. In this way, each October, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is delivered to the world.

The stately ceremonials surrounding the announcement of the Nobel Prize are calculated to suggest that the decision in Stockholm is arrived at with diligence, taste, impartiality, wisdom, a deep sense of history and an imperviousness to all outside pressures, especially commercial ones. This is not how the rest of the world always sees it. Uncommercial? The value of this year's Nobel Prize will be 7.2 million kronor (some pounds 700,000), a sum which means that, for the first time, the value of the prize in real terms will be greater than it was on its inauguration in 1901. Impervious to lobbying? They don't think so down in Wales, where the Arts Council, the Welsh Academy and the magazine The New Welsh Review have formed a "steering" committee to promote the cause of RS Thomas, a former clergyman and a fine poet but one little known - even in England - except for a handful of God-and-farming poems on the school syllabus. Impartial? The Nobel Committee is often accused of political expediency, and of bias. Wasn't the award to Boris Pasternak in 1958 a diplomatic manoeuvre in the Cold War? Was it just coincidence that the Finnish writer Frans Eemil Sillanpaa won in 1939 (when Finland was pluckily resisting the Soviet Union) or that the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz received the award in 1980 (the year of Solidarity and the shipyard strike in Gdansk)? Wasn't the reason Jorge Luis Borges failed to win the Laureateship that he was once photographed shaking hands with General Pinochet? There have been complaints of geographical prejudice, too. Why were there only two winners from outside Europe and the US in the Prize's first 45 years? Has there been a bias towards French writers (12 winners from France and Belgium) which is now being over-corrected (only one French winner in the past 35 years)?

And then there's the matter of taste, or the lack of it. Question 1: what do Sully Proudhomme, Bjornstjerne Bjornson, Jose Echegaray, Selma Lagerlof, Carl Spitteler, Wiadyslaw Stanislaw Reymont, Roger Martin du Gard, Pearl Buck, Halldor Kiljan Laxness, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Ivo Andric, Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill have in common? Answer: they all won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Question 2: what do Tolstoy, lbsen, Strindberg, Zola, Hardy, Gorky, Freud, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Joyce, Conrad, DH Lawrence, Lorca, Rilke, Brecht, Nabokov, Lowell and Calvino have in common? Answer: they all failed to. It's easy to play such name- games, and many commentators over the years have played them unfairly, invoking the omissions of Proust and Kafka, for example, to lambast the inadequacy of the Prize, when those writers gained their reputations posthumously and couldn't realistically have been Nobel candidates. All the same, the list of choices since the inception of the Nobel Prize in 1901 inevitably raises a question or two about the choosers. Can they be trusted? How can we tell that all's above board?

The short answer is: we can't. The 18 members of the Swedish Academy - those entrusted with the task of choosing the Nobel Literature Laureate - are sworn to secrecy over their deliberations. What goes on in their committee meetings, the nominations, reports, minutes, memos, letters and discussions: all information about this is embargoed for 50 years. A bland sentence or two in literary-critical praise of the new Laureate is all the press is given at the time of the award. The bureaucracy of decision- making - the when, where and how as well as the why and who - remains largely unknown. The ebb and flow of favoured names, the numbers of votes cast, the identity of those writers who may have just missed out: none of this can be revealed.

Frustrating though the policy can be, it's easy to sympathise with the Swedish Academy's pledge of secrecy and its mistrust of the press. Until 1976, the year Saul Bellow won the prize, the Academy had an understanding with the four quality Swedish newspapers that they be alerted 48 hours ahead of the announcement provided they respect the embargo. But that year a television company was somehow leaked the Laureate's name, broke the embargo, forced the newspapers to break it in turn, and caused panic and outrage in the Academy. There were also, in the 1970s and 80s, several indiscretions from one of the Academy's members, Artur Lundkvist, the man widely credited with denying the Nobel to Graham Greene: in various ill-judged interviews, the voluble Lundkvist showed more of the inner sanctum than his colleagues felt appropriate. Since Lundkvist's death, members of the Academy have kept their mouths shut, if only to avoid embarrassments such as that of long-time hopeful Alberto Moravia, who, tipped off that the Prize was about to go to Italy, threw a party to celebrate his success - only to learn that it had gone to his countryman Salvatore Quasimodo. The story may be apocryphal, but it's part of Nobel legend, which is becoming increasingly tarnished by gossip. The danger is that open admission of the Academy's deliberations will reduce media coverage of the Nobel Prize to a bitchy pageant of winners and losers. Besides, how many writers would welcome learning the reasons they were denied the world's highest literary honour? This way, at least, there is some gravitas.

All the same, the secrecy sits oddly with Sweden's reputation as a progressive, liberal and open society, and anyone encountering it for the first time, as I did, may be shocked to see how far its ripples spread. Several insiders I wrote to - in advance of a visit to Stockholm - failed to reply, or replied only with refusals to speak. The few sources who were prepared to talk asked that most of what they said be off the record. Even the Swedish Academy itself was slow to respond to letters and faxes, and though its permanent secretary, Sture Allen, eventually proved helpful and obliging, by the time I met him I'd begun to despair not so much of penetrating the sanctum as of gaining admission to the lobby.

Before I reached Stockholm, I'd been made to suspect that the grave and noble arbiters of the Nobel Prize for Literature are operating inside one of the most festering, paranoid literary communities in the world. I'd begun to hear what George Eliot (who died too early to be a Nobel Laureate) called "the roar that lies the other side of silence".

STOCKHOLM, in late August, is already autumnal. The middle classes have returned from their holidays at northern lakes and archipelagoes. The schools are back, the light has gone by 8pm, people wear overcoats against the chill, ice-skates dominate the windows of sports shops. Quiet, unstressed, a metropolis to fall asleep in, Stockholm is proud of its record of beating pollution: the brochures boast that you can swim or catch salmon right at its heart (and I did see a man land a perch from a bridge near the royal palace). It's a place that loves to be thought clean, rightminded, above controversy, beyond reproach.

Though the city is generously endowed with statues of its kings, queens, leaders, poets and artists, there's a curious lack of memorials to Alfred Nobel, born here in 1833 and arguably its most famous citizen: no plaque, no museum, not even a monument in the park named after him. Perhaps the lack stems from embarrassment, in a neutral or pacifist nation, that Nobel made most of his money from the invention and production of explosives. It seems unlikely, or unfair if true: as well as the philanthropic use to which he put his profits, Nobel was ahead of his time in providing welfare for his employees, never experienced a strike in any of his factories, and developed nitroglycerine so that it had many beneficial social effects. But whatever the reasons, the only legacy of Nobel in Stockholm is a disused factory in Vinterviken, to the south of the city, a long, red-brick building - plaqueless, barred and boarded up - which locals have nicknamed Kolsyran, "the Sulphur Dioxide".

Like other great Scandinavians, Alfred Nobel was a misanthrope. Cosmopolitan, widely read, fluent in five languages, he was always on the move - he had homes in six countries - and over the years his loneliness grew. Despite two close relationships with women, he never married or had children. Which is why, when he died in 1896, he was able to put the major part of his estate, some 31m Swedish kronor (the equivalent of 1,500m kronor, or pounds 150m, today) towards the establishment of five annual prizes, to be awarded to those in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and "fraternity among nations" (peace) who "during the preceding year have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind". The Swedish Academy, to which fell the task of choosing the Literature prizewinner, was hesitant about shouldering the burden: some members didn't want to be part of "a cosmopolitan tribunal". Even when the first Laureate was named in 1901, the then Permanent Secretary, Carl David af Wirsen, felt misgivings enough to recite the following poem at the Nobel banquet:

Unwished the task, unsought for, bearing now

so weightily on Swedish backs; it seems

we tremble taking obligation's vow:

henceforth a world will deem how Sweden deems.

In the event, not even Sweden deemed how Sweden deemed: Sully Proudhomme, the first Laureate, was such an obviously poor choice, arrived at because the committee were unduly influenced by a block vote in the nomination from the Academie Francaise, that 42 Swedish writers wrote an open address to Leo Tolstoy, dissociating themselves from the decision and paying homage to the writer whom they believed should have been Laureate. Tolstoy replied that he was "very glad" not to be given the award: the prize money would have brought "nothing but evil". His comment ensured that he would not win the Nobel Prize in any subsequent year, either.

Already, in its inaugural year, a basic pattern in the award and reception of the Literature Prize had been established: a debatable choice; attacks on the Swedish Academy, not least from other Swedish writers; rows; a suggestion that the Prize can do its recipient more harm than good; petulance on all sides. Ninety-five years on, the essential ingredients have scarcely altered. Only the Peace Prize has shown a similar power to incite war and strife. In death as well as life, Alfred Nobel was dynamite.

ON THE FACE of it, the procedure for judging the Literature Prize seems uncontentious enough. It works like this. To be considered, candidates must be formally nominated, though any candidate nominating himself (and it does happen) is automatically disqualified. Nominations, which have to arrive by 1 February of the relevant year, can come from the following sources: 1, the Swedish Academy or similar national academies and institutions: 2, professors of history of literature and language; 3, Nobel laureates in literature; 4, presidents of authors' organisations. Surprisingly, given that rule 2 allows any literature or language professor in the world to suggest a candidate, the Academy receives only "several hundred" nominations annually. Some 200 names will recur among these several hundred nominations, and if there are any obvious oversights and omissions ("Why hasn't Updike come in this year?") the Academy itself can fill the gaps.

A five-man sub-committee of the Academy - the Nobel committee - then begins to consider the 200 names. Very quickly, the list comes down to 15. Four or five more meetings between late February and late May reduce the list further, until a maximum of six names is presented to a full session of the Academy. These are debated and sometimes altered, but a shortlist is arrived at before the summer recess begins on 31 May. The Swedish Academy does not meet again until mid-September. The three-and-a-half-months' break - which many members spend away at retreats like Gotland - allows everyone in the Academy time to read the shortlisted candidates in depth, which also means re-reading and reading about them, in literary-critical essays and specialist reports.

On return from their lands of midnight sun, each member of the Nobel committee presents a paper giving his or her choice. Debate follows at each Thursday evening session (5pm-6.30pm), until there seems to be a majority - at which point a morning meeting is called for the following Thursday, in anticipation of a verdict and announcement. The expectation is that this will happen in mid-October, but the date is never fixed, and in theory a decision might not be arrived at until November. So clandestine is the process that even the announcement of the date of the announcement is not made until 48 hours before. If there still isn't a majority verdict, the prize can be awarded jointly (though this has to be for reasons of literary affinity, not just because there is a tie), or held over. In all, the prize has been "reserved" - deferred to the following year - on six occasions, although the last time was more than 40 years ago.

The decision process sounds as dutiful, bureaucratic and incorruptible as you'd expect of the Swedes. But what, I wanted to know, of the decision- makers? Who are the members at the centre of the annual farrago? How heavily do their shoulders sag from the burden of deeming for the world?

THOUGH I have been given an address for the Swedish Academy, in Stockholm's Old Town, it takes me a little time to find the discreet nameplate to the left of the door. To the right of the door - this partly explains my confusion - is a garish, illuminated screen giving the latest world share prices. I hadn't realised that the Academy's headquarters are situated on a floor of the Swedish Stock Exchange. Art and Mammon sharing the same premises: it's not inappropriate, given that the Nobel Prize brings immense riches to its recipient.

I ring the second-floor bell, which is answered by Sture Allen himself, a neat, handsome man in his mid-sixties, who looks a bit like a genial, tidied-up version of the late Anthony Burgess and whose shoulders don't seem to sag at all. The door opens straight into his cavernous office, large-windowed, with an imposing desk at the centre. The Swedish Academy, he explains, was founded in 1786, by King Gustav III, who wanted to set up an institution along the lines of the Academie Francaise to preserve and enrich Swedish language and literature. King Gustav also wished the Academy to give advice on correct linguistic usage, and to this end work began on a dictionary. Two hundred odd years after its establishment, the Academy still has no completed dictionary to its name, although it has reached volume 31, the letter S. The Swedes don't like to rush things.

King Gustav also wished the Academy to promote poetry and oratory through competitions, and the Academy still administers a number of prizes, indeed an increasing number of them year by year: the Royal Prize, the Bellman Prize, the Swedish Language Prize, the Drama Prize, the Kellgren Prize, the Nordic Prize, the Finland Prize, the Swedish Teaching Prize. There is a great list of these prizes, over 50 in all. There is even one called The Great Prize, not to be confused with that other great prize, the Nobel.

Members of the Academy are not paid, except for work on sub-committees, but they do traditionally receive a silver coin or plaquette, bearing the motto "Snille och smak" (Genius and discretion) each time they attend. Tradition also decrees that meetings may be followed with a meal of pea soup and pancakes at Den Gyldene Freden (The Golden Peace), a restaurant donated to the Academy by the artist Anders Zorn.

Sture Allen is happy to answer questions about the Nobel, so long as they don't bear on individual names. We discuss, for example, Nobel's stipulation that the Literature Prize go to "work of an idealistic tendency". Allen, a linguist, believes that this is a mistranslation, or misreading. The word Nobel used, idealisk, is comparatively rare. Early on it was taken to mean spiritually uplifting, even positive, which, is why Tolstoy and Ibsen were denied the award. It may be better translated as "suitable" or "perfect", or it may suggest "belonging to the realm of ideas". Allen is urging the Nobel Foundation to consider a better definition.

But who exactly are the Academicians who decide the Nobel? Sture Allen hands me a list of the 18 current members. Roughly half are poets or novelists, and half are professors, with a few practising a bit of both. Each member is elected for life and is expected, upon taking up his position, to pay tribute in a long speech and monograph to his illustrious predecessor, without whose death the opportunity for him to be elected would not have arisen. "Him" is, or was, the operative word. For many years after the war, there were no women members of the Academy, which helps explain why, astonishingly, there was only one female winner, or half-winner, of the Nobel Prize - the Swedish Nelly Sachs, who shared it in 1966 with the Israeli Shmuel Yosef Agnon - between 1945 and 1991. Now there are four women members of the Academy, and there have been two female Laureates - Nadine Gordimer and Toni Morrison - in the past four years.

Sture Allen busily stresses the qualifications of the members who aren't practising writers: this one is a philologist, that one a Sinologist, these two are historians. In the old days, it was common to have a religious man on board - not now, though there is still a lawyer, a former high court judge. The judge is one of the longer-serving members, but far from the oldest. That honour falls to Johannes Edfelt, a poet and translator, who is 90. There are two other Academicians of 87 and 85, and seven more in their seventies. The average age of the Swedish Academy is 70.5, and was older until the recent appointment of young Katarina Frostensen (born 1953), a poet whose arrival quietened complaints in the press about senility, sclerosis and ancient (male) members having to be carried in to meetings. Sture Allen doesn't think septuagenarianism a disqualification. Election to the Academy has traditionally been an honouring of a writer's lifetime achievement. So, too, is the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, though ideally it will be given to writers with their best work still ahead of them - Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera was written after his award in 1982; Joseph Brodsky was only 47 when he became Laureate in 1987.

Sweden is a country where even the less educated speak at least two languages, and where the more educated, like those in the Academy, often read three or four - a great advantage when judging world literature. For writers from less familiar language groups, the Academy calls on specialists, and if a serious candidate hasn't been translated into Swedish it commissions its own translation: an expensive process, but the Nobel Foundation has the will and the wallet to make it happen. Allen shows me the Nobel Library, across the corridor from his office, which was set up specifically to help the Academy's deliberations. With 200,000 volumes, it now houses the country's finest collection of world literature - periodicals and reference books as well as novels and slim volumes and (in the archive) those specially commissioned translations. Its existence is yet more evidence of how seriously the Academy takes its role, and of how discreetly it operates: when a new candidate swims into ken, and the 18 members each need to be furnished with the relevant books, copies have to be obtained from a variety of sources, so as not to arouse suspicions or raise hopes. A good translation of a foreign author by a talented Swede will carry more weight with the Academy than any amount of lobbying.

Back in Sture Allen's office, Kjell Espmark has arrived. Poet, novelist, literary historian, and chairman of the Nobel Prize committee, he seems a dry man, a bit of a sobersides, but his own work, by all accounts, shows there's a volcano underneath: his satirical portrait of a newspaper editor in one recent novel is, I'm assured, "as vicious as Strindberg". In 1991, Espmark published a study of "the criteria behind the choices" of the Nobel Prize, an insider's view, an apologia in parts, but by far the most informative account of the Prize ever written. The book shows how different chairmen over the century have pushed different tendencies. The early years were disastrous, inclined to honour writers who were religious, royalist and reactionary. Round the 1914-18 war, the vogue was for "neutralism". Between the wars, popular novelists fared better than Modernist poets. After the Second World War came the glorious years of Anders Osterling (between 1945 and 1949, Hesse, Gide, Eliot and Faulkner were all honoured). Osterling's successor was Lars Gyllensten (a chairman anxious not to be Eurocentrist), who was in turn succeeded by Espmark (ditto). Since 1985, there has been only one Laureate from Europe, and Nigeria, Egypt, Mexico, St Lucia and Japan have been among those to claim the crown. Espmark admits: "Yes, the tendency in recent years has been to broaden the horizon - though on exclusively literary grounds. The Academy didn't have the resources in the past to be genuinely universal. In the last 10 years, we've tried very hard to do what should have been done from the beginning. What's most important now is the possibility of directing the attention of the literary world towards writers who would otherwise remain little read. But it must be remembered that the only criterion is literary, not political. And it's still possible for the Prize to go to someone like Garcia Marquez, who sells millions."

Both Allen and Espmark touchily deny the old allegations against the Prize committee: that it tries to give each nation its turn; that it's anti-women or (now) pro-women; that its choice can be deadly dull because of fudge and compromise; that it's swayed by politics. "You have to realise," says Allen, "that the Swedish Academy has nothing to do with our government, or with any company or organisation - it's completely autonomous." He's right, of course. But in the past it did look after itself a bit indulgently. There is a photograph, in the Academy's own booklet, of a meeting of its members, all men, in October 1975. They seem a happy group, as well they might be. The previous October, two of them - upper left, Eyvind Johnson; bottom right, Harry Martinson - jointly shared the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though these two wouldn't have been allowed a vote, they were hardly unknown to their colleagues, who they'd done weekly Academy business with for years. "Statistically speaking," Kjell Espmark admits, "too many Scandinavians have won the prize." Statistically speaking, he is on to something: seven Swedes, three Norwegians, two Danes, an Icelander and a Finn - 14 Scandinavian winners in the Prize's first 74 years.

To conclude, Sture Allen takes me to the "session room" where, one Thursday very soon, the Academy will cast its vote. The room is quiet, sedate, cut off from the world. I notice only one oddity. Though there are 18 members of the Academy, there are only 14 chairs round the table. Not every member attends in person, Allen explains; some cast their votes by post. It seems a bit bizarre, not bothering to put in an appearance when you're a judge of the greatest literary prize in the world and this is its most important meeting. But I let it pass, shake hands, and leave.

IT IS only later I see the connection between the missing chairs and the one matter Sture Allen has been embarrassed to talk about, the resignation of three members of the Swedish Academy in the late Eighties. After the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1989, there was pressure on the Academy to make some kind of statement in support of Rushdie. The Academy voted not to: members could, and did, individually protest against the threat to Rushdie, but as a body the Academy had a 200-year-long history to maintain of never making political interventions. However, two members, the former chairman Lars Gyllensten and the novelist Kerstin Ekman, disagreed with the decision and resigned. And a third member, the poet Werner Aspenstrom, never a man for committees, saw the opportunity to liberate himself and followed suit.

Rushdie himself now says that, "though grateful for the gesture of support, I'm sad, embarrassed and even rather appalled that because of me the Academy was split. The feeling I got was that the divisions were already there." There has been some bridge-building since, between Rushdie and the Academy: in 1992, he was invited to lecture there, from the same podium where the newly elected Nobel Laureate gives his acceptance speech - a rare honour, shared only by Vaclav Havel. But the split in the Academy itself remains, and others in Stockholm confirm Rushdie's hunch that the fatwa row merely exacerbated already existing tensions. When the choleric Gyllensten had stepped down as permanent secretary in 1988, he'd not expected the seemingly mild Sture Allen to assume such firm control of the Academy's business, and he resented the usurpation of power. Since Gyllensten's departure, he and Allen have had venomous exchanges in the Swedish press. Though the pretext has been linguistics, no one could mistake the bitter personal rivalry.

The problem, as Per Wastberg tells me in his mid-city flat, is that members of the Swedish Academy can't resign. Wastberg, novelist, journalist and vice-president of International PEN, is a writer who would add lustre to the Academy and is regularly tipped for nomination each time a place falls vacant. There are now three vacancies, in effect, but Sture Allen is sticking to the letter: the Academy is for life, and he won't let the three defectors go free. Though Wastberg thinks it a bad decision - "Since the Academy plays such a vital role, it's tragic to leave three places empty" - he is reluctant to pronounce on the quarrel. He has a huge admiration for Gyllensten as a poet, but he also thinks the present Academy is more committed, energetic and outgoing than it used to be. Others are not so sure: they worry that, with a passive (and reduced) membership, Allen and Espmark are assuming too much power. What's clear is that the Academy is not the civil, faceless, homogenous body it likes to pretend. Those missing chairs (three of them, anyway) tell a story of power struggles and bitter rivalry.

NOR is the Swedish Academy quite neutral. How could it be, when its members inevitably mix with other authors at home and abroad? Even in Stockholm, there is a conspiracy theory as to why the Nobel Prize never went to Graham Greene. It's well known that Greene had an enemy in Artur Lundkvist, who thought his novels "too popular" to merit the Prize. Less well-known is that Greene had an affair with Anita Bjork, the Swedish actress. Bjork was married to the Swedish poet Stig Dagerman, who committed suicide - inhaling car exhaust fumes in his garage - at 31. Lundkvist was an admirer of Dagerman's poetry. Perhaps he was also an admirer of Anita Bjork's body. Or perhaps he blamed Greene in some way for Dagerman's death. There were personal reasons, anyway, for him to resist Greene. So goes the story.

The story isn't quite right - Greene met Bjork when she was a widow, not a wife. But Michael Shelden's recent biography of Greene points out that, after the affair with Bjork was over, the distressing details of Dagerman's death were used by Greene in his play The Complaisant Lover, a tasteless piece of exploitation which caused offence in Stockholm. Shelden is reluctant to believe that merely personal factors could have swayed Lundkvist. But others in the Academy may have been influenced, too. In many ways, Stockholm (population 650,000) is more like a small town than a city, with an everyone-knows-everyone artistic community, and a long memory for bad behaviour. Greene had been a face in town long before Anita Bjork. His novel, England Made Me (1935), is set in Stockholm, and contains a disturbing portrait of a Swedish business mogul. It's possible that familiarity bred contempt. Not even Swedes are immune to the human factor.

Which is not to say that Swedish Academicians are easily swayed. Those who have tried to bribe them - like the Iranian poet who shipped over 18 crates of pistachio nuts, or Indian writers' organisations which have offered free air tickets, hotels and sumptous banquets - have got nowhere, or less than nowhere. Even those with more sophisticated means of lobbying, in the US and Europe, have failed to appreciate how finely tuned the Swedish are to this kind of pressure, and how counter-productive it always proves to be. Just get your nomination in, wait, and let be: that's all a lobbyist can do. It's true that the Swedish Academy, as the history of the Nobel Prize shows, is affected by the intellectual currents of the day - in the Nineties, political correctness. But, self-conscious and self-critical, it is also eager to prove its independent-mindedness. lt can't be fixed. There's no predicting, in any one year, which way it will swing.

ON MY last night in Stockholm, I go with a Swedish writer to the City Hall. It's here that the Nobel Banquet takes place each 10 December, with the year's (and previous years') various Laureates. First the 1,300 guests dine in the Blue Hall, not blue at all but a vast brick space like an Italian piazza. The statistics are dizzying. Twenty cooks; 210 waiters; 325 bottles of champagne drunk, 505 of wine, 270 litres of coffee. The laying of tables here the previous day takes 20 people five hours, and each waiter covers some 5km during the banquet. After the meal, the guests move up to dance in the Golden Hall. Tonight, people are dancing at a different festivity, an international pharmacologists' conference. We gatecrash a while, buy a beer, then move down to eat in the City Hall cellars.

There is more Nobel-ity here. If you book far enough in advance, you can order - at 710 kronor (pounds 70) a head - any one of the Nobel menus served at the 95 annual banquets, records of which have all been kept. Last-minute, my friend and I have to settle not for the William Faulkner, 1949 menu, but for the Kenzaburo Oe, 1994: roulades of smoked duck breast, mango and chard Mache salad with pine kernels; fillet of veal with sage and PomPom mushrooms, tomato stuffed with spinach, and fondant potatoes with ginger; Nobel ice- cream parfait with spun sugar; plus Moet & Chandon, 1990 Chateau Liversan and 1984 Moulin Touchais. It comes a bit expensive, but you drink from gold-leaf stemmed wine flutes and eat off plates engraved with gold Nobel medallions, and already, by August, so our personalised keepsake menus tell us, 4,835 people have eaten a Nobel meal here this year - 4,000 of them Japanese in tour parties, says the waiter, a bit of a surge since Oe's award.

The Nobel business, one sees, is big business, and could be bigger. Only sloth, integrity or the Nobel Foundation's untold wealth have prevented this from happening, but - like the Swedish Academy's dictionary - it is all bound to come in the end: not just meals in the City Hall Cellars and at The Golden Peace, but Alfred Nobel heritage trails, audio playbacks of acceptance speeches, videos of early dynamite experiments, a Hall of Fame.

Over our meal, the Swedish writer and I play the Nobel Literature quiz game. Two Laureates have been called Mistral: true or false? (True: Frederic Mistral of France in 1904 and Gabriela Mistral of Chile - no relation - in 1945.) Which winner represented no country? (Ivan Bunin, born in Russia, domiciled in France, but stateless.) Which writer won posthumously? (Erik Axel Karlfeldt of Sweden, who died after the decision had been made.) Which country did not win the Prize in its first 35 years, but has won it, on average, every sixth year since? (The United States.) Which two writers declined the Prize? (Sartre, voluntarily, and Pasternak, who was forced to, after having accepted it, by the USSR.) Who was the last dramatist to win? (Beckett, in 1969.)

We change the subject to this year's prize. We know it's no use speculating, we've been told that politics and geography are irrelevant, but what the hell: who is going win? Since no dramatist has won since Beckett, what about Arthur Miller? Or maybe the poet Seamus Heaney - Ireland has one of the best success rates (Shaw, Yeats and Beckett) but hasn't figured for 26 years. Germany hasn't won for 23 years: how long can Gunter Grass go on being ignored, or has the time come for Christa Wolf or Hans Magnus Enzensberger? What about Jose Saramago? There's never been a Portuguese winner, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is a great book. China has never won, either - though we can't think of a name - nor the Netherlands (Harry Mulisch, Cees Noteboom), nor Brazil, whose Autran Dourado and Jorge Amado must be possibles. Africa is under-represented (maybe Chinua Achebe, maybe Doris Lessing), so is the Arab world (maybe the poet Adonis), so is Australia (maybe Les Murray). Milan Kundera remains uncrowned. So do RK Narayan and Salman Rushdie - the Swedish Academy has been bravely undiplomatic before, and India has not had a winner for 80 years. Then there's the Gaelic world, also without a Laureate: Scotland's Sorley Maclean is much admired, while both the Welsh and English Arts Councils are supporting RS Thomas... We argue on past coffee, deciding, firmly, that though the Nobel Committee can't be second-guessed year by year, it's a dead cert that over the next few years Heaney, Saramago, Kundera, Grass, Narayan or Rushdie, and a writer from China, will claim the Prize.

Around midnight we wander out into the night, and gaze at the water. The Nobel Prize process is cumbersome. Its labyrinthine bureaucracy can seem laughable, like something out of Kafka or Borges. But in which nation's hands would the prize be safer? What else, if not a committee of septuagenarian Swedes? A cafe of thirtysomething French philosophes? A pub of British literary critics? A seminar room of American campus celebs? It's no contest.