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
Friday 14 October 2005
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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