The Nobel Prize in Literature 1991
Presentation Speech by Professor Sture
Allén, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Art is on the side of the oppressed, Nadine Gordimer says in one of her essays, urging us to think before we dismiss this heretical idea about the freedom of art. If art is freedom, she asks, how could it exist within the oppressors?
Nadine Gordimer agrees with last year's Laureate, Octavio Paz, in asserting the importance of regaining the meanings of words, as a first step in the critical process. She has had the courage to write as if censorship did not exist, and so has seen her books banned, time after time.
Above all, it is people, individual men and women, that have captured her and been captured by her. It is their lives, their heaven and hell, that absorb her. The outer reality is ever present, but it is through her characters that the whole historical process is crystallized.
Conveying to the reader a powerful sense of authenticity, and with wide human relevance, she makes visible the extremely complicated and utterly inhuman living conditions in the world of racial segregation. She feels political responsibility, and does not shy away from its consequences, but will not allow it to affect her as a writer: her texts are not agitatorial, not progandistic. Still, her works and the deep insights she offers contribute to shaping reality.
In one of her great novels we meet Maureen, the stronger of husband and wife in a family who, with the help of their boy, have fled the fighting, taking refuge in a hut in his native village. Here, gradually, the strains on their mode of life, language and everyday relations become unbearable. One day Maureen notices a helicopter landing. She does not know whether it brings friends or enemies but, stricken with unspeakable horror, she instinctively leaves the hut and starts running towards the sound. She runs ever faster and more frantically. She runs with all the suppressed trust of a lifetime. She runs for her survival, the enemy of all responsibility.
This is the closing scene of the novel. Were there still possibilities ahead of her? Or was this the very end? To Maureen and what she stands for, the future appears to hold out the opposite of utopia, a dystopia. This is not Nadine Gordimer's only vision, but it is one which she has found it necessary to give expression to.
In this way, artistry and morality fuse.
People are more important than principles.
A truly living human being cannot remain neutral.
No one is in possession of all goodness, and no one has a monopoly of evil.
Irony does not need any prompting.
Children who meet, gladly meet halfway.
The power of love makes the mountain tremble.
Thoughts and impressions such as these are called forth by novels like A Guest of Honour, The Conservationist, Burger's Daughter, July's People, and My Son's Story. However, in a manner as absorbing as in her novels, Nadine Gordimer develops her penetrating depiction of character, her compassion and her powers of precise wording in her short stories, in collections like Six Feet of the Country and, as yet untranslated, A Soldier's Embrace and Something Out There.
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is remarkable how often Nadine Gordimer succeeds in her artistic intent - to burn a hole through the page.
Dear Miss Gordimer,
Ninety years ago, the prize citation mentioned "the qualities of both heart and intellect". Indeed, these words apply no less today when the Swedish Academy points to the Nobelian concept of outstanding literary achievement as an important means of conferring benefit on mankind, in terms of human value and freedom of speech. It is my privilege and pleasure, on behalf of the Swedish Academy, to convey to you the warmest congratulations on the Nobel Prize in Literature 1991 and to invite you to receive the Prize from the hands of His Majesty the King.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1991-1995, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1991