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The Nobel Prize for Literature: Taste and Aftertaste

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Gerhard Hauptmann

When the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature failed to be awarded – at least, in 20181 – there were three main reactions from the public:

  • Good. They shouldn't announce literary prizes when members of the Committee are embroiled in scandal.
  • Double good: We literary 'outsiders', who are tired of decisions we disagree with, can set up our own award, and give it to more pop culture icons.
  • Triple good: Who the heck reads Nobel-prizewinning literature, anyway? Those Nobel laureates are probably people our teachers wanted us to read. We'd hate all those books.

It is the last response to which this Guide Entry directs its efforts.

The Noble Nobel

As everybody knows, Alfred Nobel was a Swedish explosives expert who founded the Nobel prizes, first awarded in 1901, to reward excellence and encourage human progress. According to the philanthropist's will, the literature prize was supposed to go 'to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.' Who decides what is 'ideal'? The Prize Committee, we suppose. Which is why the following list may cause chuckles or disagreement among readers.

Between 1901 and 2017, the Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded 110 times. Here are some highlights from this prize-giving history. Prize-award quotes are taken from the website.

Literature Admiration, 1901-2017

1901: Sully Prudhomme (1839-1907). special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.

Sully Prudhomme was a safe choice for 1901: elegant, formal, and French. He was already a member of the ultra-prestigious French Academy. A famous poem of his, judging by the number of times it still appears online, is 'Les berceaux/The Cradles'. The first stanza reads:

Le long du quai les grands vaisseaux
Que la houle incline en silence
Ne prennent pas garde aux berceaux
Que la main des femmes balance.
Along the quay, the great ships
that ride the swell in silence
take no notice of the cradles
that the hands of the women rock.

Read the rest here. (Look up translations on your own, lazy monoglots.)

1907: Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author.

So far, the Nobel Prize Committee had picked writers and poets with elegant styles and formal expertise. In 1907, they took a leap into the world of Muscular Christianity, that movement for health of mind and body and general right-thinking. That this sort of thinking almost always came with an unhealthy dose of paternalistic white supremacy might go without saying, but we'll say it anyway – and so will Kipling.

Take up the White Man's burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Read the rest here, if you care to, and discuss among yourselves what you think of Kipling's attitudes and the Literature Committee's evolving taste in poetry.

1912: Gerhard Hauptmann (1862-1946)

...primarily in recognition of his fruitful, varied and outstanding production in the realm of dramatic art.

Hauptmann was from Lower Silesia, in Prussia. His unusual literary output included The Fool in Christ, Emanuel Quint, about a wandering preacher who mixed sun worship and Christianity. There is also his harrowing play Vor Sonnenaufgang/Before Sunrise, which describes a family in which everybody, old and young, is drunk pretty much all of the time. In fact, they drink so much that the next generation inherits alcoholism.

Ideas like the ones in Before Sunrise were popular with eugenicists, of which Hauptmann was one. His personal copy of Mein Kampf, heavily annotated, can be viewed in the Berlin State Library. Hauptmann applied for membership in the Nazi Party, but the Nobel laureate was turned down by the regional party office.

Look here for a contemporary appeal by Hauptmann's US publisher for a definitive statement against Nazism which never came.

1914, 1918: No prize

No prize was awarded in the year the Great War broke out. No prize was awarded in the year the war ended, either. The First World War was a setback for the principles of the Nobel Prize organisation, which promoted world peace.

There were to be other years in which no prize was awarded. As provided for in Nobel's instructions, the prize money was simply held over in the general fund if the Committee didn't believe any worthy candidates had emerged that year. This happened in the 1930s and early 1940s in particular.

1920: Knut Pedersen Hamsun (1859-1952)

...for his monumental work, Growth of the Soil.

Hamsun's Nobel-winning novel Growth of the Soil (Markens Grøde) is about the superiority of Norwegian farm life to modern frivolities. There's a lot of stream-of-consciousness, a new technique at the time. Hamsun inclined toward pantheism. He also supported the Nazis. This did not make him popular in Norway during the Second World War. After the war, Hamsun was found guilty of treason – and fined 325,000 Norwegian kroner. After all, he was elderly, and a beloved literary figure. He had also written this obituary for Adolf Hitler:

I am not worthy to speak loudly of Adolf Hitler, nor do his life and deeds call for sentimental arousal. He was a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations. He was a reformer of the highest order, and his historical fate was that he lived in a time of unequalled cruelty, which felled him in the end. Thus the ordinary Western European may look upon Adolf Hitler. And we, his close followers, bow our heads at his death.
- Aftenposten, 7 May, 1945

1923: William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

...for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.

Awarding the prize to William Butler Yeats, so soon after Ireland had gained independence, was a symbolic act of support for the country in general. Yeats was a highly regarded poet, and still is.

In addition to his political activism, Yeats was a force behind the revival of interest in Irish mythology. He was also interested in the occult, and shared membership in the Golden Dawn with the likes of Aleister Crowley. Which may partly account for verses like this:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread...

- 'Song of Wandering Aengus'

The 1920s: George Bernard Shaw, Henri Bergson, Sigrid Unset, Thomas Mann, and Others

The 1920s were a time of fairly uncontroversial awards. Most of the awardees are still highly regarded writers, at least in their own countries. The Nobel Committee did make a point of awarding Thomas Mann the prize only for his dynastic family novel Buddenbrooks, which they admired. (They didn't particularly like The Magic Mountain.)

1933: Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin (1870-1953)

...for the strict artistry with which he has carried on the classical Russian traditions in prose writing.

Bunin was the first Russian writer to be awarded the prize. He wasn't in Russia at the time: he was in exile. The Committee seems to have approved of Bunin's opposition to the communist regime. Bunin went to live in France, where he spent the Second World War starving in the mountains. The writer not only disliked the Bolsheviks: he referred to the Nazis as 'rabid monkeys'. He spent the war growing vegetables and helping his neighbours, and wrote nothing for publication.

1945-1950: Ground-breaking (and Weird) Writers

From 1946 through 1950, the Literature Committee seems to have changed its tune: instead of rewarding elaborately formal poetry, fascist sentiments, and long dynastic novels, they gave the award to some really unusual writers, and broke new ground:

  • 1945: Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957): The first Latin American literature laureate, Chilean Gabriela Mistral was also an educator and diplomat. Her image is on the 5,000-peso bank note in Chile.
  • 1946: Hermann Hesse (1877-1962): ...for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style. That's one way of describing the author of Steppenwolf, although many hippies of the 1960s assumed he was a happening guru who probably hung out with the Maharishi.
  • 1947: André Gide (1869-1951): French anticolonialist, temporary communist (he got better), novelist, essayist, and world traveller, among many other accomplishments. ...for his comprehensive and artistically significant writings, in which human problems and conditions have been presented with a fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight.
  • 1948: TS Eliot (1888-1965): The American-British poet. For his poetry, of course, which tells us that the world ends 'not with a bang but a whimper'.
  • 1949: William Faulkner (1897-1962): ...for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel... Possibly also because he wrote those ever-popular dynastic novels, although all of his Mississippi families were headed steadily downhill with the exception of the loathsome Snopeses.
  • 1950: Bertrand Russell (1872-1970): Russell's 'varied and significant writings' were praised. Russell was against both Stalin and Hitler, which completes a decade in which no Nobel Prizes for Literature were actually awarded to people with embarrassing political affiliations.

Cold War and Beyond

The 1950s: The coldest of Cold War decades saw prizes awarded with a definite anti-communist bent. Winston Churchill won in 1953, and Boris Pasternak in 1958 – although the authorities made him give it back. In the meantime, such perennial readers' favourites as Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus and Halldór Laxness2 added luster to the growing list.

The 1960s: Oddly, less politics and more writing skill were in evidence during the turbulent Sixties. Saint-John Perse, a French diplomat, was the first Nobel Literature laureate to have his work praised as 'evocative'. John Steinbeck won in 1962 for his 'keen social perception', and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964 for his 'quest for truth'. Holocaust poet Nelly Sachs shared the 1966 award with Hebrew fiction writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon. Absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett won in 1969.

The 1970s: Back to politics: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1970, for his 'ethical force', Pablo Neruda in 1971, for bringing alive 'a continent's destiny and dreams', Heinrich Böll for his 'renewal of German literature', and Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978 for 'his impassioned narrative art'.

1980-2010: Over the next three decades, the Nobel Prize for Literature became more and more about the writing: its quality, its scope, and its inclusive subject matter, with emphasis on what is usually called the human condition. Here are a few highlights of Nobel award reasoning:

  • 1983: William Golding: ...for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today.
  • 1986: Wole Soyinka: ...who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.
  • 1990: Octavio Paz: ...for impassioned writing with wide horizons...
  • 1994: Kenzaburo Oe: ...a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today...

Which Way Literature?

Literature has to chronicle, if not its own time, at least the way people in its own time are thinking about things. The Nobel committees of 1901 believed in peace, love, and understanding. At least, they thought they did. The literature they liked was high-minded – or thought it was. People from the future are likely to judge them differently, particularly because people from the future are able to look back and see exactly how many of those authors got into hot water when their ideas turned out to be... not such good ideas after all.

By the end of the Second World War, literature enthusiasts seemed to have understood that if novelists and poets were going to be looked to as pathfinders, readers needed to be more selective about those pathfinders, and not follow them blindly into the ideological thickets. The Nobel literature prize has tended more and more to go to an eclectic mix of writers who are considered powerful influences in their own languages, with an emphasis on finding universal truths about humanity, if such things exist.

Which leads the investigator into Nobel history to raise one unavoidable question: what universal truth about the human condition is expressed in this lyric?

And take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees...

- Bob Dylan (Nobel Prize for Literature, 2016), Mr Tambourine Man

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

1The Committee announced that it would name two prizewinners in 2019.2Who can forget Laxness' vivid description of an Icelandic shark recipe? It should be pointed out that Laxness also received an award from the World Peace Council, a Soviet-sponsored organisation.

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