The Nobel Prize in Literature


by Kjell Espmark*

Nobel’s will and the Literature Prize

Among the five prizes provided for in Alfred Nobel’s will (1895), one was intended for the person who, in the literary field, had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. The Laureate should be determined by “the Academy in Stockholm”, which was specified by the statutes of the Nobel Foundation to mean the Swedish Academy. These statutes defined literature as “not only belles-lettres, but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value”. At the same time, the restriction to works presented “during the preceding year” was softened: “older works” could be considered “if their significance has not become apparent until recently”. It was also stated that candidates must be nominated in writing by those entitled to do so before 1 February each year.

A special regulation gave the right of nomination to members of the Swedish Academy and other academies, institutions and societies similar to it in constitution and purpose, and to university teachers of aesthetics, literature and history. An emendation in 1949 specified the category of teachers: “professors of literature and philology at universities and university colleges”. The right to nominate was at the same time extended to previous Prize-winners and to “presidents of those societies of authors that are representative of the literary production in their respective countries”. The statutes also provided for a Nobel Committee “to give their opinion in matter of the award of the prizes” and for a Nobel Institute with a library which was to contain a substantial collection of mainly modern literature.

Accept the task? Discussion in the Swedish Academy

Two members of the Swedish Academy spoke strongly against accepting Nobel’s legacy, for fear that the obligation would detract from the Academy’s proper concerns and turn it into “a cosmopolitan tribunal of literature”. They could have added that the Academy, in doldrums at the time, was ill-equipped for the sensitive task. The permanent secretary, Carl David af Wirsén, replied that refusal would deprive “the great figures of continental literature” of an exceptional recognition, and conjured up the weighty reproach to be directed at the Academy if it failed to “acquire an influential position in world literature”. Besides, the task would not be foreign to the purposes of the Academy: proper knowledge of the best in the literature of other countries was necessary for an Academy that had to judge the literature of its own country. This effective argument, which won a qualified majority for acceptance, showed not only openness to Nobel’s far-reaching intentions, but also harbored Wirsén’s and his sympathizers’ ambition to seize the unexpetected possibilities in the field of the politics of culture, and to enjoy, as he wrote in a letter, “the enormous power and prestige that the Nobel will bequeaths to the Eighteen [members of the Academy]”.

Nobel’s guidelines and their interpretations: A short history

As guidelines for the distribution of the Literature Prize the Swedish Academy had the general requirement for all the prizes – the candidate should have bestowed “the greatest benefit on mankind” – and the special condition for literature, “in an ideal direction”. Both prescriptions are vague and the second, in particular, was to cause much discussion. What did Nobel actually mean by ideal? In fact, the history of the Literature Prize appears as a series of attempts to interpret an imprecisely worded will. The consecutive phases in that history reflect the changing sensibility of an Academy continuously renewing itself. The main source of knowledge of the principles and criteria applied is the annual reports which the Committee presented to the Academy (itself making part of that body). Also the correspondence between the members is often enlightening. There is an obstacle though: all Nobel information is to be secret for 50 years.

“A lofty and sound idealism” (1901-12)

The first stage, from 1901 to 1912, has the stamp of the secretary Carl David af Wirsén, who read Nobel’s “ideal” as “a lofty and sound idealism”. The set of criteria which resulted in Prizes to Bjørnstierne Bjørnson, Rudyard Kipling and Paul Heyse, but rejected Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen and Émile Zola, is characterized by its conservative idealism (a domestic variation of Hegelian philosophy), holding church, state and family sacred, and by its idealist aesthetics derived from Goethe’s and Hegel’s epoch (and codified by F.T. Fischer in the middle of the nineteenth century). Those standards had earlier been typical of Wirsén’s and the Academy’s struggle against the radical Scandinavian writers. Nobel’s testament gave Wirsén – called “the Don Quixote of Swedish romantic idealism” – the opportunity to carry his provincial campaign into the fields of international literature. This application was actually far from Nobel’s values: he certainly shared Wirsén’s disgust for writers like Zola, but was radically anticleric, adopting Shelley’s utopian idealism and religiously coloured spirit of revolt.

A policy of neutrality (World War I)

The next chapter in the history of the Literary Prize could be entitled “A Literary Policy of Neutrality”. The objectives laid down by the new chairman of the Academy’s Nobel Committee at the beginning of the First World War kept, on the whole, the belligerent powers outside, giving the small nations a chance. This policy partly explains the Scandinavian overrepresentation on the list. The Prizes to the Swede Verner von Heidenstam, the Danes Karl Gjellerup and Henrik Pontoppidan – one of the few cases of a shared Prize – and to the Norwegian Knut Hamsun still in 1920 are to be comprehended from this point of view.

“The great style” (the 1920s)

A third period, approximately coinciding with the 1920s, could be labeled “The Great Style”. This key concept in the reports of the Committee reveals the connections with Wirsén’s epoch and its traits of classicism. With such a standard the Academy was, of course, out of touch with what happened in contemporary literature. It could appreciate Thomas Mann‘s Buddenbrooks – a masterpiece “approaching the classical realism in Tolstoy” – but passed his Magic Mountain over in silence. By that time, however, the Academy had got rid of its narrow definition of “ideal direction”. In 1921 this stipulation of the will was interpreted more generously as “wide-hearted humanity”, which paved the way for writers like Anatole France and George Bernard Shaw, both inconceivable as Laureates – and, sure enough, rejected – at an earlier stage.

“Universal interest” (the 1930s)

In line with the requirement “the greatest benefit on mankind”, the Academy of the 1930s tried a new approach, equating this “mankind” with the immediate readership of the works in question. A report of its Committee stated “universal interest” as a criterion and the Academy decided on writers within everybody’s reach, from Sinclair Lewis to Pearl Buck, repudiating exclusive poets like Paul Valéry and Paul Claudel.

“The pioneers” (1946- )

Given a pause for renewal by the Second World War and inspired by its new secretary, Anders Österling, the post-war Academy finished this excursion into popular taste, focussing instead on what was called “the pioneers”. Like in the sciences, the Laureates were to be found among those who paved the way for new developments. In a way, this is another interpretation of the formula “the greatest benefit on mankind”: the perfect candidate was the one who had provided world literature with new possibilities in outlook and language.

In Österling’s epoch, the word “ideal” was deliberately taken in a still wider sense: the new list started with Hermann Hesse who, in the 1930s, had been rejected for “ethical anarchy” and lack of “plastic visuality and firmness” in his characters, words which echo Wirsén’s time. Later, the compatibility of Samuel Beckett‘s dark conception of the world with Nobel’s “ideal” was put to the test, one of the last occasions when this condition was central to the discussion. It is only at “the depths” that “pessimistic thought and poetry can work their miracles”, said Karl-Ragnar Gierow in his address, emphasising the deep sense of human worth and the life-giving force, nevertheless, in Beckett’s pessimism. The borderline of this generosity can be seen in the handling of Ezra Pound. He appealed to the Academy because of his “pioneering significance”, but was disqualified by his wartime applauding, on the Italian radio network, of the mass extermination of the East European Jews. Member Dag Hammarskjöld, in a representative way, concluded that “such a ‘subhuman’ reaction” excluded “a prize that is after all intended to lay weight on the ‘idealistic tendency’ of the recipient’s efforts”. (This repudiation did not prevent Hammarskjöld from negotiating, on the Academy’s commission, with the American authorities for Pound’s release from the mental hospital where he had been interned to be saved from a death penalty for treason.)

This new policy, at the same time more exclusive and more generous in its interpretation of the will, was actually meant to start with Valéry but he died in the summer of 1945. Instead we find, in 1946-50, the splendid series Hesse, André Gide, T.S. Eliot, and William Faulkner. In his address to the author of The Waste Land, Österling drew attention to “another pioneer work, which had a still more sensational effect on modern literature,” James Joyce’s Ulysses. With this reference to the greatest omission of the 1930s, he extended the 1948 acclaim of Eliot to cover also the dead master. The explicit concentration on innovators can, via the choices of Saint-John Perse in 1960 and Samuel Beckett in 1969, be traced up to recent years.

The criterion lost weight, however, as the heroic period of the international avant-garde turned into history and literary innovation became less ostentatious. Instead, the instruments pointed at the “pioneers” of specific linguistic areas. The 1988 Prize was awarded a writer who, from a Western point of view, rather administers the heritage from Flaubert and Thomas Mann. In the Arabic world, on the other hand, Naguib Mahfouz appears as the creator of its contemporary novel. The following Prize went to Camilo José Cela, who had, in an international perspective, modest claims to the title “pioneer”, but who was, in Spanish literature, the great innovator of post-war fiction. Still found among the innovators of certain linguistic areas is 2000 Laureate, Gao Xingjian, whose œuvre “has opened new paths for the Chinese novel drama”.

Attention to unknown masters (1978- )

Another policy, partly coinciding with the one just outlined, partly replacing it, is “the pragmatic consideration” worded by the new secretary, Lars Gyllensten, and, again, taking into account the “benefit” of the Prize. A growing number within the Academy wanted to call attention to important but unnoticed writers and literatures, thus giving the world audience masterpieces they would otherwise miss, and at the same time, giving an important writer due attention. We get glimpses of such arguments as far back as the choice of Rabindranath Tagore in 1913 but there was no programme until the early 1970s. The full emergence of this policy can be seen from 1978 and onwards, in the Prizes to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Odysseus Elytis, Elias Canetti, and Jaroslav Seifert. The criterion gives poetry a prominent place. In no other period were the poets so well provided for as in the years 1990-1996 when four of the seven prizes went to Octavio Paz, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, and Wislawa Szymborska, all of them earlier unknown to the world audience.

“The literature of the whole world” (1986- )

A new policy, long on its way, had a breakthrough in the 1980s. Again, it was an attempt to understand and carry out Nobel’s intentions. His will had an international horizon, though it rejected any consideration for the nationality of the candidates: the most worthy should be chosen, “whether he be Scandinavian or not”. The problem of surveying the literature of the whole world was, however, overwhelming and for a long time the Academy was, with justice, to be criticized for making the award a European affair. Wirsén expressly confined himself, as we saw, to “the great figures of Continental literature”. In the 1920s it was certainly laid down that the prize was “intended for the literature of the whole world” but instruments to implement the idea were not available. In the 1930s, there were, on the whole, not even reasonable nominations from the Asiatic countries and the Academy had, at that time, not yet developed a scouting system of its own.

The Prize at last to Yasunari Kawabata in 1968 illustrates the exceptional difficulties in judging literature in non-European languages – this was a matter of seven years, involving four international experts. In 1984, however, Gyllensten declared that attention to non-European writers was gradually increasing in the Academy; attempts were being made “to achieve a global distribution”. This includes measures to strengthen the competence for the international task.

The picture of the Academy’s Eurocentric policy was also significantly altered by the choices of Wole Soyinka from Nigeria in 1986 and Naguib Mahfouz from Egypt in 1988. Later practice shows the extension to Nadine Gordimer from South Africa, to Kenzaburo Oe from Japan, to Derek Walcott from St. Lucia in the West Indies, to Toni Morrison, the first Afro-American on the list, and to Gao Xingjian, the first laureate to write in Chinese. It is, however, important that nationality is not involved in the discussion. It has sometimes been suggested that the Academy should first decide upon a neglected language and then seek out the best candidate in it. Doing so would amount to politization of the Prize. Instead, efforts are being made to widen the horizon so that, in the course of the normal process of judgement, it is possible to weigh sometimes a prominent Nigerian dramatist and poet, sometimes an Egyptian novelist, against candidates from closer parts of the linguistic atlas – with all such evaluations continuing to be made on literary grounds. Critics have quite often neglected the Academy’s striving for political integrity. Naturally, an international prize can have political effects but it must not, according to this jury, carry any political intention.

The criteria discussed sometimes alternate, sometimes coincide. The spotlight on the unknown master Canetti in 1981 is thus followed by the laurel to the universally hailed “pioneer” of magic realism, Gabriel García Márquez, in 1982. Some Laureates answer both requirements, like Faulkner, who was not only “the great experimentalist among twentieth-century novelists” – the Academy was here fortunate enough to anticipate Faulkner’s enormous importance to later fiction – but also, in 1950, a fairly unknown writer. On this occasion, the Prize, for once, could help a great innovator outside the limelight to reach his potential disciples as well as his due audience. The surprising Prize to Dario Fo in 1997 can also be said to have a double address: it was given to a genre which had earlier been left out in the cold but also to the brilliant innovator of that genre.

The prize becoming a literary prize

The more and more generous interpretation of the formula “in an ideal direction” continued in the 1980s and the 1990s. Academy Secretary Lars Gyllensten pointed out that nowadays the expression “is not taken too literally… It is realized that on the whole the serious literature that is worthy of a prize furthers knowledge of man and his condition and endeavours to enrich and improve his life”. Cela’s candidature, again, put the principle to the test. His dark conception of the world posed the same problem as Beckett’s, and provoked a similar solution. The Prize was given “for a rich and intense prose, which with restrained compassion forms a challenging vision of man’s vulnerability”. As Knut Ahnlund said in his address, Cela’s work “in no way lacks sympathy or common human feeling, unless we demand that those sentiments should be expressed in the simplest possible way”. In this “unless” we glimpse the repudiation, implicit in recent practice, of the early narrow interpretation of the will. The Nobel Prize in Literature has gradually become a literary prize. One of the few reminiscences of the “ideal direction” policy of the earlier age is the homage paid to those great artistic achievements that are characterized by uncompromising “integrity” in the depiction of the human predicament (cf. below).

International neglect of the change of standards

International criticism of the Literature Prize has usually treated the Academy’s practice during the first century of the Prize as a whole, overlooking the differences in outlook and criteria between the various periods, even neglecting the continuous renewal which makes the Academy of, say, 1950 a jury much different from Wirsén’s.

As to the early prizes, the censure of bad choices and blatant omissions is often justified. Tolstoy, Ibsen and Henry James should have been rewarded instead of, for instance, Sully Prudhomme, Eucken and Heyse. The Academy which got this exacting commission was simply not fit for the task. It was deliberately formed as “a bulwark” against the new radical literature in Sweden and much too conservative in outlook and taste to be an international literary jury. It was not until the 1940s – with Anders Österling as secretary – that the Academy, considerably rejuvenated, had the competence to address the major writers of, in the first place, the Western World. On the whole, criticism of its postwar practice has also been much more appreciative. Objections in recent times have less often been levelled against literary quality, rather referred, mistakenly, to political intentions. Also blame for eurocentricity was common, in particular from Asiatic quarters, up to the choices of Soyinka and Mahfouz in the 1980s.

Special articles


In the first year, the number of nominations was 25. In the early time of the Prize the members of the Swedish Academy were reluctant to use their right to nominate candidates. Impartiality suggested that proposals should come from outside. As no one abroad nominated Tolstoy in 1901, the self-evident candidate of the time fell outside the discussion. The omission caused a strong reaction from Swedish writers and artists who sent an address to Tolstoy – who answered by declining any future prize. During the First World War the number of nominations decreased, to fall to twelve in 1919, compared with 28 in 1913. This wartime slackening of initiative from the outside world induced the Academy to make use of its right to propose. In 1916 the Committee members themselves put forward five names. In recent times, members of the Committee – but also other members of the Academy – regularly add their nominations to the outside names to make the list as comprehensive and representative as possible. The number of nominations has towards the end of the century been about – and even substantially surpassed – 200.

The Nobel committee

The Nobel Committee is a working unit of 3-5, chosen within the Swedish Academy, (with a rare additional member from outside). Its task is to examine the proposals made and study all relevant literary material to select the candidates to be considered by the Academy. Formerly the Committee presented only one name for the decision of the Academy, which usually confirmed the choice of its Committee. (There are exceptions though: the Academy preferred Tagore in 1913 and Henri Bergson in 1927.) From the 1970s and onwards, the members of the Committee have presented individual reports, which enables the Academy to weigh the different opinions and consequently gives it a greater influence.

The Committee’s first task is to trim down “the long list” nowadays about 200 names of to some 15, which are presented to the Academy in April. Towards the end of May, this “half-long list” is condensed to a “short list” of five names. The œuvres of these finalists make up the Academy’s summer readings. At its first reunion in the middle of September, the discussion immediately starts, to end in a decision about a month later. Naturally, the whole production of five writers would be too heavy a workload for a couple of months but most names of the previous short list return the current year, which makes the task more reasonable. It should be added that in recent times a first-year candidate will not be taken to a prize the same year. In the background looms one of the main failures, Pearl Buck, the Laureate of 1938. A first-year candidate, she was launched by a Committee minority as late as 19 September, to win the contest a short time afterwards, without due consideration.

The chairman of the Committee has usually been identical with the Academy’s permanent secretary, with some displacement at transitional stages. Thus, Carl David af Wirsén was chairman in 1900-1912, Per Hallström (secretary from 1931) in 1922-1946, Anders Österling (secretary from 1941) in 1947-1970, Karl-Ragnar Gierow (secretary from 1964) in 1970-1980, and Lars Gyllensten (secretary from 1977) in 1981-1987. An exceptional period is in 1913-1921 when the historian, Harald Hjärne wrote the reports. In 1986, when Sture Allén became secretary, Gyllensten remained as chairman, to be succeeded by Kjell Espmark in 1988. Since 1986 the tasks have thus been divided between secretary and chairman.

“Ideal” – A textual examination

As was shown by Sture Allén, the adjective “ideal” referring to an ideal was used by several of Nobel’s contemporaries; one of them was Strindberg. However, the word is, he found, an amendment made by Nobel in his handwritten will. He seems to have written “idealirad”, with “idealiserad” (idealized) in mind, but checked himself in front of the reference to embellishment in this word for upliftment and wrote “sk” over the final letters “rad”, thus ending in the disputed word “idealisk”. Allén concluded that Nobel actually meant “in a direction towards an ideal”, and specified the sphere of the ideal by the general criterion for all the Nobel Prizes: they are addressed to those who “shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. “This means, for instance”, Allén added, “that writings, however brilliant, that advocate, say, genocide, will not comply with the will.”

Shared prize

The Nobel Prize for Literature can be divided between two – but not three – candidates. However, the Swedish Academy has been restrictive on this point. Divisions are liable to be regarded as – and sometimes are – the result of compromise. That was the case with Frédéric Mistral and José Echegaray in 1904 and with Karl Gjellerup and Henrik Pontoppidan in 1916. A shared prize also runs the risk of being viewed as only half a laurel. Later divisions are exceptional, the only cases being the shared Prizes to Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Nelly Sachs in 1966 and to Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson in 1974. In the 1970s a policy was laid down, stating (1) that each of the two candidates must alone be worthy of the Prize and (2) that there must be some community between them justifying the procedure. The latter requirement no doubt offers a real obstacle for divisions.

Competence for the international task

In the Swedish Academy, linguistic competence has, as a rule, been high. French, English, and German have posed no problems and several members have been excellent translators from Italian and Spanish. Also noted Orientalists have found a place in the Academy. One of them (Esaias Tegnér, Jr.) could have read Tagore in Bengali (but in fact contented himself with the author’s own English translation of Gitanjali), another (H. S. Nyberg) could report on Arabic literature. In 1985 Göran Malmqvist, one of the West’s foremost experts on modern Chinese literature, became a member. The present Academy includes competence also in Russian. Above all, however, the area of scrutiny has been extended by means of specialists in the various fields. Where translations into English, French, German or the Scandinavian languages are missing, special translations can also be procured. In several cases such exclusive versions – with no more than eighteen readers – have played an important role in the recent work of the Academy.

“Political integrity”

The Literary Prize has often, in particular during the cold war, given rise to discussion of its political implications. The Swedish Academy, for its part, has on many occasions expressed a desire to stand apart from political antagonisms. The guiding principle, in Lars Gyllensten’s words, has been “political integrity”. This has quite often not been understood. Especially in the East it has been hard to grasp the Swedish Academy’s autonomous position vis-à-vis state and government. In fact, the Academy does not receive any subsidy from the state, nor would it accept any interference in its work. The government, in its turn, is quite happy to stand outside the delicate Nobel matters.

Naturally, there is a political aspect of any international literary prize. It is, however, necessary to make a distinction between political effects and political intentions. The former are unavoidable – and often unpredictable. The latter are expressly banned by the Academy. The distinction, as well as the autonomy of the Academy, can be illustrated by the prehistory of the Prize to Solzhenitsyn. Considering the sad consequences for Pasternak of his Prize, the secretary Karl-Ragnar Gierow took the unusual step of writing to the Swedish ambassador to Moscow, Gunnar Jarring, to gain some idea of Solzhenitsyn’s position, stressing that the question related, of course, only to what might “happen to him personally.” On this point, Mr. Jarring could give a reassuring answer (which proved not to be prophetic). But he also had another message. He wanted to postpone the decision, specifying, in a letter to Österling, that a prize to Solzhenitsyn “would lead to difficulties for our relations with the Soviet Union”. He received the reply: “Yes, that could well be so, but we are agreed that Solzhenitsyn is the most deserving candidate.” This exchange illuminates a fundamental fact: the Academy has no regard for what may or may not be desirable in the eyes of the Swedish Foreign Office. Its unconventional inquiry was concerned solely with the likely effects of the decision for the candidate personally. However, the exchange also offers a good example of the way in which a likely political effect may be taken into account – not, of course, that the Academy intended the possible disturbance in Soviet relations, but that it was aware of the risk and chose to take it.

The history of the Literary Prize offers a case where this delicate balance was endangered, the prize to Winston Churchill. When the decision was taken in 1953, after many years of discussion, it was felt that a sufficient distance from the candidate’s wartime exploits had been gained, making it possible for a Prize to him to be generally understood as a literary award. The reaction from many quarters showed that this was quite a vain hope.

Now, there can be no doubt that the Committee and the Academy attributed exceptional literary merits to Churchill the historian and the orator. They certainly concurred in the address to the Laureate, “a Caesar who also had the gift of wielding Cicero’s stylus”. The problem was how this Caesar, a mere eight years after the war, could be mentally separated from the Ciceronian prose. After all, Churchill was not only the winner of World War II but prime minister and leader of one of the key powers in the cold war world. It can be asked if any of the Academy’s choices has put its political integrity at such risk. At any rate, one well-known conclusion was drawn: ever since, candidates with governmental positions, such as André Malraux and Léopold Senghor, have been consistently ruled out.

During the last decades there is one seeming case of a “political” Prize, the award to Czeslaw Milosz. “Has Milosz been given the 1980 Prize because Poland is politically in fashion?” asked Der Tagesspiegel and many other newspapers joined in. The suspicions did not account for the time involved in each nominee’s candidacy. As was disclosed by a member, Artur Lundkvist, Milosz had been on the list for three or four years and had been shortlisted in May 1980 – in other words, long before the Danzig strike. The strike caused several members to hesitate, said Lundkvist, but he added that it would have been equally impossible to drop Milosz because of the events in Poland.

His argument no doubt reflects the opinion within the Academy. This jury realizes not only the damage that a political choice would inflict on the Prize; the integrity of the award could be jeopardised also by a non-choice in a delicate situation. Still, Milosz was a dissident, and so were Jaroslav Seifert and Joseph Brodsky, the Laureates of 1984 and 1987. These choices all caused great irritation in the East. There one failed to see that the Academy’s overriding concern was literary. The pronouncements of the secretary repeatedly stressed the existential dimensions of these great contemporary poets, values corresponding to the humanistic traditions of the Literary Prize. From that point of view it is essential that Milosz’s political defection be thus formulated by Gyllensten (after a reminder of how during the cold war the political climate had altered in a Stalinist direction): “With his uncompromising demand for artistic integrity and human freedom, Milosz could no longer support the regime”. Uncompromising integrity and a call to rally round human values – these are qualities that the Swedish Academy, following the spirit of Nobel’s will, has again and again sought in combination with great artistic achievement. And just as repeatedly, this mode of evaluation has collided with Marxist/Leninist aesthetics, which interprets such a focus as mere camouflage for political intentions.

The process of judgement, while “primarily a literary matter”, does not, of course, prevent subsidiary evaluations from gradually forming a pattern. Such a pattern is apparent in the sequence Singer-Milosz-Canetti-Seifert. At first sight one could see here what a newspaper headline proclaimed about the choice of Seifert: “The Swedish Academy Greets Central Europe.” It is, however, not a question of some politically defined region or some third way in the tug-of-war between East and West. It is rather a question of authors who with great personal integrity have given voice to an old culture that has either been swept aside by oppressors or whose continued existence was severely threatened. In the difficult area of Central Europe, a number of authors have emerged, speaking, out of their sorely tested experience, on behalf of the basic human values – this in keeping with the humanistic tradition of the Nobel Prize. Such a pattern, though, reveals only part of the truth. The Prize is in the end not given to an attitude toward life, to a set of cultural roots, or to the substance of a commitment; the Prize has been rewarded so as to honour the unique artistic power by which this human experience has been shaped into literature.

International criticism of the literature prize

The history of the Literature Prize is also the history of its reception in the press and in other media. Apart from overlooking the changes in outlooks and criteria within the Swedish Academy, international criticism has tended to neglect the crowd of likely names around the Prize a specific year. Thus, Graham Greene was a celebrated candidate towards 1970 and the Academy was criticized for passing him over. But the 1969 Prize went to Samuel Beckett and the 1970 Prize to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, both most worthy candidates. Quite rightly, an international inquiry by Books Abroad in 1951, directed to 350 specialists, came to the conclusion that the first fifty years of the Prize contained 150 “necessary” candidates. The Academy cannot have the ambition to crown all worthy writers. What it cannot afford is giving Nobel’s laurel to a minor talent. Its practice during the last full half-century has also largely escaped criticism on that point. Even the inquiry of 1951 found that two-thirds of the prizes during the first half-century were fully justified – “a fairly decent testimonial”, as Österling commented. The second half-century as liable to get a still better mark.

As was mentioned above, criticism of omissions and bad choices was often justified as to the early period of the Prize. The Academy headed by Wirsén made only one choice to get general acclaim by posterity – Rudyard Kipling, and then for qualities other than those that have shown themselves to be lasting. The score of the 1910s and the 1920s was better: Gerhart Hauptmann, Tagore, France, Yeats, Shaw, and Mann have been found worthy in several appraisals. The results of the period 1930-1939 are poorer. Two choices have widely been regarded as splendid: Luigi Pirandello in 1934 and Eugene O’Neill in 1936. But the period offers several laureates justly judged as mediocre – and they conceal as many cases of neglect: Virginia Woolf ought to have been rewarded instead of Pearl Buck, and so on. The Academy of the inter-war years quite simply lacked the necessary tools to evaluate one of the most dynamic periods in Western literature. The post-war Academy has in a quite different manner fulfilled the expectations of serious criticism. The Österling Academy’s investment in the pioneers has received due recognition in many favorable assessments. Names like Gide, Eliot, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Beckett have won general acclaim. Some names less known to an international audience, like Jiménez, Laxness, Quasimodo, and Andric, have attracted criticism as insignificant, but been classified by experts as discoveries.

Sometimes the complaints about omissions have been anachronistic. Among those missing, critics have found Proust, Kafka, Rilke, Musil, Cavafy, Mandelstam, García Lorca, and Pessoa. This list, if it had any chronological justification, would undeniably suggest serious failure. But the main works of Kafka, Cavafy, and Pessoa were not published until after their deaths and the true dimensions of Mandelstam’s poetry were revealed above all in the unpublished poems that his wife saved from extinction and gave to the world long after he had perished in his Siberian exile. In the other cases there was much too brief a period of time between the publication of the author’s most deserving work and his death for a prize to have been possible. Thus, Proust achieved notoriety in 1919 by the Goncourt Prize for the second part of À la recherche du temps perdu but less than three years later he was dead. The same short time of reaction was offered by Rilke’s Duineser Elegien and García Lorca’s plays. Musil’s significance did not appear outside a narrow circle of connoisseurs until more than a decade after his death in 1942. He belonged, as was pointed out by a critic (Theodor Ziolkowski), to the category of authors who “on closer examination … exclude themselves.”

Epilogue: At the turn of the century

The last literary Nobel Prize of the twentieth century was awarded to Günter Grass, “whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history”. The choice won general acclaim but the moment was called in question. Why not three decades ago when Grass was at the summit of his craft? And why just now?

The first question takes us back to the situation around 1970 when Böll and Grass were both hot names. When the laurel was given to Böll in 1972 the citation recalled his contribution “to a renewal of German literature”. The word had, however, a special meaning here. As was clarified in Gierow’s speech to the Laureate “the renewal” was “not an experiment with form” but “a rebirth out of annihilation”, “a resurrection” of a ravaged culture “to the joy and benefit of us all”: “Such was the kind of work Alfred Nobel wished his prize to reward.” This meant that the foremost representative of a moral renaissance from the ruins of the Third Reich was preferred, with a direct appeal to Nobel’s intentions, to the country’s foremost representative of what was an artistic renewal. The choice took Grass out of focus for many years, and allowed for a discussion of a downward trend in his craft. It remained for the rejuvenated Academy of the nineties to take up the issue again. Several of its new members might have chosen Grass instead of Böll in 1972. As to the alleged decline of Grass’s art, the presentation at the announcement certainly called special attention to The Tin Drum and the Danzig trilogy it makes part of, but refused to share the politically biased German view of Ein weites Feld. “We just read the book and it is goddam good”, as the permanent secretary Horace Engdahl declared.

Also the second question – why just now? – can be answered. The citation recalls the fabulous historian, with a view to the forgotten face of history. Without neglecting works like The Flounder, beginning at the dawn of history, the jury naturally focussed upon the great recreator of the century just about to end. Grass is, in the secretary’s words, “one of the really important writers investigating and explaining the twentieth century to us”; giving him the last prize of the century was “an easy decision”. In other words, the choice long due found its perfect moment at the very end of the period that Grass had summed up in his incomparable way.

Grass’s stronger position in recent years is, of course, also due to the growing understanding of his role as a source of energy in literature. In 1972 he was still a solitary master. In recent years he has been hailed as a precursor by writers such as Salman Rushdie, Nadine Gordimer, Gabriel García Márquez, Antonio Lobo Antunes, and Kenzaburo Oe. Grass has found his place among the “pioneers”.

This choice at the end of the century has, however, also another purport. The Prizes to Hesse, Gide, Eliot, and Faulkner introduced a half-century of new competence for the difficult mission. The 1999 Prize is an indication of how far the jury has managed to make the Prize for Literature a literary award. The reference to moral values at the expense of experimental art in 1972 would be hard to imagine in the present Academy. We also notice the explicit disregard of the political implications that made Grass’s last novel an apple of discord in his country. The Literary Prize has made an instructive journey since 1901. At the beginning of the new century it has become the Literary Prize that its name announces.



Espmark, K., The Nobel Prize in Literature. A Study of the Criteria behind the Choices. G.K. Hall & Co, Boston 1991.


* Published as a chapter of The Nobel Prize: The First 100 Years, Agneta Wallin Levinovitz and Nils Ringertz, eds., Imperial College Press and World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., 2001.

Kjell Espmark (b. 1930) is a poet, a novelist, and a literary historian. He was professor in comparative Literature at the University of Stockholm 1978-1995, became a member of the Swedish Academy in 1981 and the chairman of its Nobel Committee in 1988. His poetry can be read in a dozen languages, including English: Béla Bartók against the Third Reich (1985), Route Tournante (1993), and Five Swedish Poets (1997). The first in a series of seven novels, Glömskans tid (“The Age of Oblivion”, 1987-1997, is available in French (L´Oubli, 1990) and Italian (L´Oblio, 1998). The best-known of his seven books of criticism (including studies of Harry Martinsson, Tomas Tranströmer, and the tradition from Baudelaire) is The Nobel Prize in Literature, A Study of the Criteria behind the choices (1986; in English in 1991); it can also be read in French, German, Greek, and Chinese.

First published 3 December 1999

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