A Nobel calling: 100 years of controversy

Not many women, a weakness for Anglo-Saxon literature and an ostrich-like ability to resist popular or political pressure. Alex Duval Smith reports from Stockholm on the strange and secret world of the Swedish Academy

The venerable committee of intellectuals - known as de aderton ("the 18" in old Swedish) - that selects the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature also demonstrated that Anglo-Saxon literature is its priority, failing once again to award the prize to a writer for work published in an Asian language, or Arabic that has not been translated into English. But pleasing itself, rather than readers, publishers or pundits, has been the academy's style since 1901.

This year, amid the start of talks on Turkey's entry in the European Union, much literary wishful thinking had been directed at Orhan Pamuk, the author of the widely acclaimed Snow. Pamuk is to go on trial in Turkey on 16 December for commenting in a newspaper interview this year that his country had been guilty of a 20th-century genocide of Armenians and Kurds. His supporters felt a Nobel Prize would be timely.

Last year, pundits expected the world's most prestigious literary prize to mark the a year of turmoil in the Middle East with an award for the Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said, also known as Adonis, or the Israeli writer Amos Oz. Instead, the Swedish Academy chose the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, who is at least an anti-American, anti-war activist. In 2001, after the 11 September attacks, the politically correct might have wished for a Muslim laureat to raise morale in a community that felt increasingly isolated. Instead they were given V S Naipaul, a writer who is almost dismissively anti-Islam.

Swedish journalist Jonas Thente says the prize can best be analysed as a round-robin of the 18 seats on the first floor of the old Stockholm stock exchange, the home of the Swedish Academy. "Every year, there are two winners, the laureat and the academy member who has lobbied for him or her for years, maybe decades," he said. "With a little bit of knowledge about the academy members, you can work out a kind of nominator-winner's list."

The Thente theory holds that the 1997 award to the Italian leftwing playwright Dario Fo was the work of the academy poet and dramatist Lars Forssell. The choice of Gao Xingjian in 2000 was a triumph for Göran Malmqvist, the Chinese writer's translator for the previous 12 years. He similarly explains the choice of the Hungarian Holocaust writer Imre Kertész in 2002 and that of Jelinek last year. "Every academy member has his or her own agenda and their own personal favourites," Thente said. "It is human." But if his theory is correct, it makes a mockery of the formal nomination process under which 3,000 letters are sent every year to universities and leading literary figures, inviting suggestions.

The academy may exude an air of rising above reigning trends, but look at the list of past winners and it is clear that it is sensitive to outside reactions. In the early years of the Nobel Literature Prize, a disproportionate number of Nordic writers were honoured. Observers say that, as a result, the academy will never award the literature prize to the very worthy, living Swedish poet Thomas Tranströmer.

It is not difficult, either, to draw up a long list of the academy's astonishing omissions. They include Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, Emile Zola, Mark Twain, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Anton Chekhov, Gertrude Stein, Eugene Ionesco and Virginia Woolf. These were passed over for the likes of the one-book wonder Pearl Buck (1938), the hardly translated Finnish writer Frans-Eemil Sillanpää (1939) and the Danish novelist Karl Gjellerup (1917). Critics also claim Heinrich Böll received the prize in 1972 because the academy did not have the courage to reward the work of his countryman Günther Grass, who had to wait until 1999 for his prize.

Similarly, they say, when the academy takes political risks, it often attempts to correct its own boldness. The best example is the award to Mikhail Sjolochov in 1965, a choice that pleased the Soviet authorities who in 1958 had forbidden Boris Pasternak to collect his prize.

It is unlikely that any radical change will overtake the academy and its five-strong Nobel committee, chaired by Per Wästberg. The secrecy of the Nobel process even guarantees that the names of the four other writers shortlisted this year alongside Pinter will not be known for 50 years.

Elfriede Jelinek

2004

The 10th woman to win the literature prize. Judges praised her work for highlighting "the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power". Not all judges agreed. Swedish Academy member Knut Ahnlund resigned in protest against Jelinek winning the award, calling her work "a mass of text shovelled together". Others called it pornographic.

J M Coetzee

2003

Coetzee, the second South African to win the award, is also the first writer to have won the Booker Prize twice. Although his parents were not of British descent, English was always his first language. Born in Cape Town, the descendant of 17th-century Dutch settlers, the violent history and politics of his native country have often informed his work.

Imre Kertész

2002

Born in Budapest in 1929, Kertész published his first novel, Sorstalanság (Fatelessness) in 1975. Based on the author's experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, it was recently made into a successful Hungarian film. Kertész has criticised his government for not accepting more responsibility for Hungary's role in the Holocaust.

V S Naipaul

2001

A prolific writer on post-colonial identity, Naipaul's Among the Believers (1981) is one of the earliest attempts to look inside the mind of modern militant Islam. There was general surprise when he won the Nobel Prize in the immediate aftermath of 11 September, when many thought there was a need to reach out to the Islamic world.

Gao Xingjian

2000

During the Cultural Revolution, Xingjian burnt a whole suitcase full of manuscripts to avoid punishment. Sent to a re- education camp where he was brutally treated, he continued to live in China and remained a party member. Only when L'autre Rive (The Other Shore) was banned in 1987 did he leave his country of birth and apply for asylum in France.

Günter Grass

1999

Born in 1927, Günter Grass is Germany's most famous living writer. Salman Rushdie once said that The Tin Drum, Grass's most famous book, inspired him to become a writer. Grass stirred massive controversy with his novel Ein weites Feld about the collapse of communism. He has been politically active his whole life, most recently against the war in Iraq.

José Saramago

1998

José Sarmago is an outspoken critic on both sides of the political spectrum, but it is his disdain for the excesses wrought by capitalism that is particularly acrid. When the government of his native Portugal censored his book The Gospel According to Jesus Christ on the grounds it was offensive to Catholics, he moved to the Canary Islands.

Dario Fo

1997

As a young man, the author of Accidental Death of an Anarchist was conscripted into Mussolini's army towards the end of the war, but escaped and hid in an attic. Anarchist themes dominate his widely produced plays. His father played a key role in the resistance during the Second World War, smuggling Jewish scientists into Switzerland.

Wislawa Szymborska

1996

The themes in this Polish poet's 16 collections are wide-ranging, though many deal with war and terrorism. Her poem "The End and the Beginning" reads: "No sound bites, no photo opportunities And it takes years All the cameras have gone To other wars." Szymborska was born in Kornik, in western Poland, in 1923.

Seamus Heaney

1995

Born in Northern Ireland in 1939, Heaney grew up on a farm and attended a Catholic boarding school. His mother's family were employed in the local linen mill and he sees himself as a product both of the Gaelic farming tradition and Ulster's industrial revolution. His translation of the Anglo-Saxon saga Beowulf was published to critical acclaim in 2000.

Kenzaburo Oe

1994

Kenzaburo Oe was born in 1935, in a mountain village on the island of Shikoku. His works are coloured by the mythical tales of the traditional storytelling community in which he was raised, the 1945 post-war capitulation of the Japanese nation, and later, the birth of his brain-damaged son, which inspired A Personal Matter. One of his best-known works is The Silent Cry (1967).

Toni Morrison

1993

Toni Morrison was born in Ohio, where her parents had moved to escape the racism of the south. She was awarded the prize in 1993 for her works on freedom in a "genderised, sexualised, wholly racialised world". The novels Jazz, Song of Solomon and Beloved, which tells the story of a black slave woman escaping and seeking refuge in Ohio, are among her most widely read works.

Derek Walcott

1992

The West Indian poet and playwright Derek Walcott wrestled with his African-Caribbean identity and his role as a nomad between cultures from his early teens. "Either I am nobody, or I am a nation," wrote Walcott (under the persona Shabine) in the 1979 poem "The Schooner Flight". Although Walcott has lived for most of his life in Trinidad, he was born in St Lucia in 1930.

Nadine Gordimer

1991

The first South African to be awarded the prize, Nadine Gordimer maintained a high profile during apartheid. Often at the forefront of protests, she defied literary censorship and her novels address the themes of freedom, love and political understanding against a social background that is the antithesis of all three.

Octavio Paz

1990

The poet and writer Octavio Paz's Latin American identity meets influences from diplomatic service in India, most notably in his book East Slope. He resigned from his post in 1968 in protest at the Mexican government's violent suppression of the Tlatelolco demonstrations. In 1976, he combined politics, art and literature in foundingthe high-profile Mexican magazine Vuelto.

Camilo José Cela

1989

This Spanish writer's best-known novel, The Family of Pascual Duarte, is the most popular work of fiction in Spanish since Cervantes' masterpiece, Don Quixote. He introduced a style of writing, called tremendismo, which was heavily influenced by his experiences as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War.

Naguib Mahfouz

1988

One of the best-known writers and intellectuals in the Arab world, his work centres on the social history of Egypt during the 20th century. One of his best-known pieces, Children of Gebelawi, has been banned in Egypt for alleged blasphemy. He survived an assassination attempt in 1994 by Islamic fundamentalists angered by his portrayal of God.

Joseph Brodsky

1987

This dissident poet was born in Leningrad in 1940 and grew up during the Kruschev era. Discriminated against because of his Jewish blood, he never directly criticised the government, but was convicted as a "social parasite" and sent into exile for five years. He finally moved to the United States, where he died of a heart attack in 1996.

Wole Soyinka

1986

The Nigerian poet and play-wright was the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was arrested several times for criticising openly the military regime of General Sani Abacha, who also sentenced him to death. "Some people think the Nobel Prize makes you bulletproof. I never had that illusion," Soyinka once said.

Claude Simon

1985

Dominique de Villepin, the French Prime Minister, said France had lost "one of its greatest authors" when Claude Simon died earlier this year aged 91. The novelist, whose work mostly concerns his own family's history, was a leading member of the nouveau roman movement of the 1950s. The Road to Flanders (1960) is probably his best-known novel.

...and back to 1901

1984 Jaroslav Seifert

1983 William Golding

1982 Gabriel García Márquez

1981 Elias Canetti

1980 Czeslaw Milosz

1979 Odysseus Elytis

1978 Isaac Bashevis Singer

1977 Vicente Aleixandre

1976 Saul Bellow

1975 Eugenio Montale

1974 Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson

1973 Patrick White

1972 Heinrich Böll

1971 Pablo Neruda

1970 Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

1969 Samuel Beckett

1968 Yasunari Kawabata

1967 Miguel Angel Asturias

1966 Samuel Agnon, Nelly Sachs

1965 Mikhail Sholokhov

1964 Jean-Paul Sartre (but he declined to accept)

1963 Giorgos Seferis

1962 John Steinbeck

1961 Ivo Andric

1960 Saint-John Perse

1959 Salvatore Quasimodo

1958 Boris Pasternak

1957 Albert Camus

1956 Juan Ramón Jiménez

1955 Halldór Laxness

1954 Ernest Hemingway

1953 Winston Churchill

1952 François Mauriac

1951 Pär Lagerkvist

1950 Bertrand Russell

1949 William Faulkner

1948 T S Eliot

1947 André Gide

1946 Hermann Hesse

1945 Gabriela Mistral

1944 Johannes V Jensen

1943 no award

1942 no award

1941 no award

1940 no award

1939 Frans Eemil Sillanpää

1938 Pearl Buck

1937 Roger Martin du Gard

1936 Eugene O'Neill

1935 no award

1934 Luigi Pirandello

1933 Ivan Bunin

1932 John Galsworthy

1931 Erik Axel Karlfeldt

1930 Sinclair Lewis

1929 Thomas Mann

1928 Sigrid Undset

1927 Henri Bergson

1926 Grazia Deledda

1925 George Bernard Shaw

1924 Wladyslaw Reymont

1923 William Butler Yeats

1922 Jacinto Benavente

1921 Anatole France

1920 Knut Hamsun

1919 Carl Spitteler

1918 no award

1917 Karl Gjellerup and Henrik Pontoppidan

1916 Verner von Heidenstam

1915 Romain Rolland

1914 no award

1913 Rabindranath Tagore

1912 Gerhart Hauptmann

1911 Maurice Maeterlinck

1910 Paul Heyse

1909 Selma Lagerlöf

1908 Rudolf Eucken

1907 Rudyard Kipling

1906 Giosuè Carducci

1905 Henryk Sienkiewicz

1904 Frédéric Mistral, José Echegaray

1903 Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

1902 Theodor Mommsen

1901 Sully Prudhomme

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