Of course, it helps to have a fortune to back it up.
Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1833, the fourth of eight children. Insatiably curious from his youth, he was a competent chemist by age 16 and fluent in five languages. At the time of his death from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 63, he was a wealthy man, thanks to his invention of dynamite and a corporate empire created to manufacture and market his explosives.
Over his lifetime, Nobel had registered more then 350 patents in a number of countries, but he never married, and died childless. His three-page last will and testament, therefore, was the subject of much speculation by his (presumably) hopeful family and friends. And the reading of it led to an explosive surprise.
Though he’d never hinted at his plans before his death, the will put the bulk of his fortune in trust for the purpose of administering what came to be the most highly regarded of international awards, the Nobel Prizes. Whatever the reason for the bequest, the now-famous awards reflect his lifelong interest in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology, and literature.
The winner of the annual prize in each field is chosen by the members of the Swedish Academy and bestowed in person by the King of Sweden in a lavish ceremony in Stockholm. The Nobel Laureate receives a diploma, a medal, and a document confirming the prize amount, which in 2008 equaled 10,000,000 Swedish kroner (slightly more than 1 million Euros, or approximately $1.4 million American.)
The will directed that the Nobel Prize in Literature be awarded to an author who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” In Swedish, the language in which Nobel hand-wrote the will, the word translated “ideal” could also be rendered “idealistic.” Based upon this uncertainty, Nobel’s intent has been interpreted differently at different times.
At first, the Swedish Academy understood this “ideal direction” to mean “a lofty and sound idealism,” holding church, state and family sacred. This distinction caused a number of major writers to be rejected as being too political. During and shortly after the First World War, the committee adopted a policy of neutrality, favoring writers from non-combatant countries. In 1921 the “ideal direction” was officially interpreted as “wide-hearted humanity.” Universal interest became a criterion in the 1930s, and in the 1970s, the Academy chose to call attention to important but unnoticed literature, thus giving less-known writers more attention. More recently, the Committee has looked for an idealism that champions human rights, which some argue has made the award too politically biased.
Nobel may have established the Peace Prize, but his Prize for Literature has long been fraught with contention. Some allege that more major writers have been ignored by the Nobel Committee than have been honored by it. Others complain the awards focus too heavily on European, and especially Swedish, authors.
Rather than being bestowed for a single book, the Nobel Prize for Literature is essentially a lifetime achievement award. The first was awarded in 1901 to French poet and philosopher Sully Prudhomme for poetry that showed the “rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.” A look through the list of subsequent winners has a few surprises. For instance, why do we see Winston Churchill’s name as the recipient of 1953’s award? Answer: because the Nobel Foundation’s statutes define literature as “not only belles-lettres, but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value.”
Humanly imperfect though it may be, the Nobel Prize for Literature is not an award to be lightly dismissed. Unless, of course, you’re Jean-Paul Sartre, who declined to accept the award in 1964, saying, “A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form.”
Despite this one man’s opinion, 104 of the men and women chosen for this honor accepted it, although Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the winner in 1970, didn’t receive it (or the prize money) until 1974, after he was deported from the Soviet Union.
In certain years, the Academy chose not to bestow an award, but allocated the prize money to the Special Fund. Other years, two writers shared the prize. Winners hail mostly from Europe, but the list also shows representatives from the USSR, Chile, Australia, Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Columbia, Guatemala, Mexico, Japan, China, Turkey, Israel, and the United States. The entire list can be found on the Nobel Prize website.
Some of the Academy’s appellations for the winners leave me a little confused. For instance, the winner in 2008, Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio, is called “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.” (Not quite sure what that means.) Samuel Beckett, in 1969, won “for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.” (Really not sure what that means!) Must have lost something in translation.
Whether loved, hated, or viewed with indifference, the Nobel Prize for Literature is significant. An educated writer will make it a point to explore some of these authors’ works. Written by the masters, they can serve as a window to what the rest of the world is looking at.