Ivo Andric’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1961
In carrying out the high duties entrusted to it, the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy has this year awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, a signal mark of honour on the international scene, to a writer from a small country, as it is commonly called. In receiving this honour, I should like to make a few remarks about this country and to add a few considerations of a more general character about the storyteller’s work to which you have graciously awarded your Prize.
My country is indeed a «small country between the worlds», as it has aptly been characterized by one of our writers, a country which, at break-neck speed and at the cost of great sacrifices and prodigious efforts, is trying in all fields, including the field of culture, to make up for those things of which it has been deprived by a singularly turbulent and hostile past. In choosing the recipient of this award you have cast a shining light upon the literary activity of that country, at the very moment when, thanks to a number of new names and original works, that country’s literature is beginning to gain recognition through an honest endeavour to make its contribution to world literature. There is no doubt that your distinction of a writer of this country is an encouragement which calls for our gratitude; I am happy to have the opportunity to express this gratitude to you in this place and at this time, simply but sincerely.
It is a more difficult and more delicate task to tell you about the storyteller’s work which you have honoured with your Prize. In fact, when it comes down to a writer and his work, can we expect him to be able to speak of that work, when in reality his creation is but a part of himself? Some among us would rather consider the authors of works of art either as mute and absent contemporaries or as famous writers of the past, and think that the work of art speaks with a clearer and purer voice if the living voice of the author does not interfere. This attitude is neither uncommon nor particularly new. Even in his day Montesquieu contended that authors are not good judges of their own works. I remember reading with understanding admiration Goethe’s rule: «The artist’s task is to create, not to talk »; and many years later I was moved to find the same thought brilliantly expressed by the greatly mourned Albert Camus.
Let me then, as seems fitting to me, concentrate in this brief statement on the story and the storyteller in general. In thousands of languages, in the most diverse climes, from century to century, beginning with the very old stories told around the hearth in the huts of our remote ancestors down to the works of modern storytellers which are appearing at this moment in the publishing houses of the great cities of the world, it is the story of the human condition that is being spun and that men never weary of telling to one another. The manner of telling and the form of the story vary according to periods and circumstances, but the taste for telling and retelling a story remains the same: the narrative flows endlessly and never runs dry. Thus, at times, one might almost believe that from the first dawn of consciousness throughout the ages, mankind has constantly been telling itself the same story, though with infinite variations, to the rhythm of its breath and pulse. And one might say that after the fashion of the legendary and eloquent Scheherazade, this story attempts to stave off the executioner, to suspend the ineluctable decree of the fate that threatens us, and to prolong the illusion of life and of time. Or should the storyteller by his work help man to know and to recognize himself? Perhaps it is his calling to speak in the name of all those who did not have the ability or who, crushed by life, did not have the power to express themselves. Or could it be that the storyteller tells his own story to himself, like the child who sings in the dark in order to assuage his own fear? Or finally, could the aim of these stories be to throw some light on the dark paths into which life hurls us at times and to tell us about this life, which we live blindly and unconsciously, something more than we can apprehend and comprehend in our weakness ? And thus the words of a good storyteller often shed light on our acts and on our omissions, on what we should do and on what we should not have done. Hence one might wonder whether the true history of mankind is not to be found in these stories, oral or written, and whether we might not at least dimly catch the meaning of that history. And it matters little whether the story is set in the present or in the past.
Nevertheless, some will maintain that a story dealing with the past neglects, and to a certain degree turns its back on, the present. A writer of historical stories and novels could not in my opinion accept such a gratuitous judgment. He would rather be inclined to confess that he does not himself know very well when or how he moves from what is called the present into what we call the past, and that he crosses easily – as in a dream – the threshold of centuries. But in the end, do not past and present confront us with similar phenomena and with the same problems: to be a man, to have been born without knowing it or wanting it, to be thrown into the ocean of existence, to be obliged to swim, to exist; to have an identity; to resist the pressure and shocks from the outside and the unforeseen and unforeseeable acts – one’s own and those of others – which so often exceed one’s capacities? And what is more, to endure one’s own thoughts about all this: in a word, to be human.
So it happens that beyond the imaginary demarcation line between past and present the writer still finds himself eye to eye with the human condition, which he is bound to observe and understand as best he can, with which he must identify, giving it the strength of his breath and the warmth of his blood, which he must attempt to turn into the living texture of the story that he intends to translate for his readers, in such a way that the result be as beautiful, as simple, and as persuasive as possible.
How can a writer arrive at this aim, by what ways, by what means? For some it is by giving free rein to their imagination, for others it is by studying with long and painstaking care the instructions that history and social evolution afford. Some will endeavour to assimilate the substance and meaning of past epochs, others will proceed with the capricious and playful nonchalance of the prolific French novelist who once said, «What is history but a peg to hang my novels on? » In a word, there are a thousand ways and means for the novelist to arrive at his work, but what alone matters and alone is decisive is the work itself.
The author of historical novels could put as an epigraph to his works, in order to explain everything to everyone, once and for all, the old saying: «Cogitavi dies antiquos et annos aeternos in mente habui » (I have pondered the days of yore and I have kept in mind the years of eternity). But with or without epigraph, his work, by its very existence, suggests the same idea.
Still, these are ultimately nothing but questions of technique, tastes, and methods, a fascinating intellectual pastime concerning a work or having vaguely to do with it. In the end it matters little whether the writer evokes the past, describes the present, or even plunges boldly into the future. The main thing is the spirit which informs his story, the message that his work conveys to mankind; and it is obvious that rules and regulations do not avail here. Each builds his story according to his own inward needs, according to the measure of his inclinations, innate or acquired, according to his conceptions and to the power of his means of expression. Each assumes the moral responsibility for his own story and each must be allowed to tell it freely. But, in conclusion, it is to be hoped that the story told by today’s author to his contemporaries, irrespective of its form and content, should be neither tarnished by hate nor obscured by the noise of homicidal machines, but that it should be born out of love and inspired by the breadth of ideas of a free and serene human mind. For the storyteller and his work serve no purpose unless they serve, in one way or another, man and humanity. That is the essential point. And that is what I have attempted to bring out in these brief reflections inspired by the occasion and which, with your permission, I shall conclude as I began them, with the repeated expression of a profound and sincere gratitude.
Prior to the speech, G. Liljestrand, member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, addressed the laureate: Dr. Andric, as a chronicler and a novelist, you have told us about your countrymen, their life and toil, their misfortunes and endurance, in peace as well as in war. You have yourself fought for their freedom and right to live their own life. Just as the bridge on the Drina brought East and West together, so your work has acted as a link, combining the culture of your country with that of other parts of our planet, a task, well worthy of a diplomat, who is also a great author.