IN THE gilded committee room of the Swedish Academy, 18 antique chairs await the moment this morning when the most influential men and women in the world of letters sit around the table and scribble a name on the ballot paper. When the votes are tallied, a telephone will ring somewhere on the planet, bestowing instantaneous fame and fortune (the prize is worth pounds 700,000) on the person at the end of the line. Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature is that simple.
It will be even easier this year. For the rules dictate that the new laureate must obtain at least half the votes cast, plus one. And this time that adds up to a smaller sum, because two, maybe three, chairs will remain empty. Their occupants have not read the prescribed books, they have shunned the scholarly discussions that take place every Thursday afternoon in the academy, and as far as anybody knows, will be boycotting today's proceedings.
Since walking out on their colleagues, the three have spared no effort to belittle their talents, besmirch their integrity and undermine the Academy's claim to be the final arbiter of literary tastes.
The monolithic institution, entrusted by Alfred Nobel with the task of rewarding the world's best writers and poets, and containing the supreme custodians of literary purity, is riven by ugly disputes. There is a danger that its authority, already undermined by some of its prize choices in recent years, will be further eroded.
At the centre of the storm is Sture Allen, the academy's permanent secretary.
Many charges are levelled at Mr Allen, 69, by his 18 adversaries, including bureaucratic thinking and lack of vision, but none hurts more than the outrageous claim that he does not read: books, that is.
By February every year, Mr Allen receives nominations from around the world for best author or poet. The list usually runs to 200. The books must be read and reread, until several months later the heap is whittled down to a shortlist of five or six names. It is from among these finalists that the academicians will be choosing today, by placing their votes in to a tankard.
The permanent secretary is angered by suggestions that he does not like books. "I am not prepared to justify myself as a lover of literature," he railed, describing his foes as perpetrators of "destructive lies". "Everybody knows that you cannot be a permanent secretary if you don't like books."
Although Mr Allen has penned numerous learned monographs, he is not a writer in a literary sense. Asked about his profession, he describes himself as a "computational linguist". He graduated as a philologist, and did his dissertation on the application of computer techniques to the study of 17th-century Swedish literature. In those days, in the early Sixties, he was a pioneer in that field, and has been scanning text into computers ever since.
Sitting in his rococo office in the academy, Mr Allen is happy to dwell on the intricacies of the statutes of his august organisation, or the great works of reference. He does not talk so readily about the internal problems of the academy.
"Everything that happens is secret, so I cannot talk about it," he said.
But then he does. Mr Allen's most vociferous interlocutor is the 75-year old writer Knut Ahnlund, the leading absentee. Mr Ahnlund walked out two years ago, muttering about myopia in the selection of Nobel laureates. Not enough Americans, he said.
The permanent secretary has a somewhat different story: "Mr Ahnlund walked out to another publisher." Mr Ahnlund had written a highly regarded biography, which was to have been published under the aegis of the academy. "We really couldn't break our contract," Mr Allen said. "So he just took his book to another publisher."
Perhaps there is no more to it than that, give or take a little clash of egos. For Mr Ahnlund does not appear to be all that up-to-date himself. The permanent secretary, who stands accused as an arch-conservative, has lately been sharing Mr Ahnlund's anger with a younger member of the academy, whose crime may be that he is too modern.
Horace Engdahl, a 49-year old "post-structuralist", is a brilliant literary critic. But Mr Ahnlund says the youngster is too busy dissecting texts to notice their inner soul. Mr Engdahl is upset by Mr Ahnlund's attacks, made in the culture pages of Swedish newspapers.
It is difficult enough to determine what constitutes good writing, over a range of some 500 languages, without having to worry about all the other considerations the 18 minus three Swedes are taking into account as they ponder their decision. Last year, they opted for the Italian playwright Dario Fo, to howls of derision from the upper reaches of the global literary establishment, and to great acclaim from the millions of people attracted to Fo's hilarious plays. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back this year, towards the high-brow audience. In that case, expect a serious author to be given the prize today. But there are also political considerations. Last year's European leftist surely must be balanced with someone from the opposite pole. A Peruvian novelist who once ran for president in conservative colours springs to mind: Mario Vargas Llosa. Speculation is futile because the one thing that unites the remaining members of the academy is unpredictability.
Current Runners and Riders
SO SECRET are the proceedings of the Swedish Academy, it is not even known whether it has a shortlist of five or six, and who might be on it. But according to gossip in Stockholm, which almost invariably gets it hopelessly wrong, this year's winner will be a Portuguese.
Take a bow, Jose Saramago. Or maybe not. There are, in fact, two eminently qualified Portuguese in the running. Rumour has it that the academy would really like to reward Portuguese literature, but cannot agree which of its two greatest figures is more worthy. So Mr Saramago has to fight it out with his compatriot Antonio Lobo Antunes.
Also hotly tipped, and therefore standing almost no chance now, is the Flemish author Hugo Claus, from Belgium.
Other names from the rumour mill were Cees Nooteboom of the Netherlands, the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado of Brazil, and the Chinese dissident poet Bei Dao.
Gunter Grass, the German novelist, can never be discounted, even though he is only known for one great work, written decades ago, The Tin Drum.
There is a faction that keeps throwing his name into the ring, just as there are members who are always trying to give it to an American.
The academy failed to back Salman Rushdie at the time of the fatwa, so it is unlikely to make amends now.
When Genius Just Isn't Enough
LEO TOLSTOY, the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina,and no literary minnow, was pipped to the post in 1901 by a French writer, Sully Prudhomme. Prudhomme, who is now remembered for nothing much except the fact that he elbowed one of the world's greatest novelists into the shadows, received the prize for the "lofty idealism and artistic perfection" of his work.
GRAHAM GREENE is one of the giants of 20th-century English literature, but that could never earn him the Nobel Prize. Prolonged bickering kept the author of Brighton Rock and The Power and the Glory off the list - which at least puts him in good company. James Joyce, whose Ulysses has influenced the entire canon of English-language writing, was also left out in the cold, as was Marcel Proust.
BORIS PASTERNAK, author of the epic novel Dr Zhivago, was forced by the Soviet authorities to decline the prize when awarded it in 1958. It was not until the Eighties, long after Pasternak's death, that the prize was awarded. On that occasion, there was an abundance of politics on both sides: Pasternak's problems with the Communists probably helped him to win the prize.
HENRIK IBSEN was the author of Peer Gynt and Hedda Gabler. His name may ring a bell or two, but you will not find it in the lists of Nobel prize winners. He failed to win - because of a fellow Norwegian, Bjornstjerne Bjornson. You may not have heard of Bjornson, and few Norwegians are impressed by him these days - but his networking skills were better than those of his compatriot. Bjornson got the prize; Ibsen did not.
JEAN-PAUL SARTRE, the king of existentialism and Parisian cafe life, was awarded the prize for literature in 1964. But he declined. The author of the Age of Reason, Being and Nothingness, and Nausea, did not want to be troubled by such trivial matters as a Nobel prize. Sartre's work was "filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth". His mind, no doubt, was on less bourgeois things than public honours.
WILLIAM GOLDING, author of Lord of the Flies, won the prize in 1983. He provoked an exchange of acerbic views within the Swedish Academy, with one academician denouncing him as "a little English phenomenon of no special interest". After the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, the academy's permanent secretary ensured that there was no condemnation of the fatwa, let alone a Nobel Prize.