The Annual Prize for Literature; A NOBEL CALLING 100 YEARS OF CONTROVERSY ; Not Many Women, a Weakness for Anglo-Saxon Literature and an Ostrich- like Ability to Resist Popular or Political Pressure. Alex Duval Smith Reports from Stockholm on the Strange and Secret World of the Swedish Academy

By Duval, Alex | The Independent (London, England), October 14, 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Annual Prize for Literature; A NOBEL CALLING 100 YEARS OF CONTROVERSY ; Not Many Women, a Weakness for Anglo-Saxon Literature and an Ostrich- like Ability to Resist Popular or Political Pressure. Alex Duval Smith Reports from Stockholm on the Strange and Secret World of the Swedish Academy


Duval, Alex, The Independent (London, England)


The secretive Swedish Academy's reputation for unpredictability and seeming immunity to trends in political correctness remained intact yesterday with its decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Harold Pinter.

The venerable committee of intellectuals " known as de aderton ('the 18' in old Swedish) " that selects the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature also demonstrated that Anglo-Saxon literature is its priority, failing once again to award the prize to a writer for work published in an Asian language, or Arabic that has not been translated into English. But pleasing itself, rather than readers, publishers or pundits, has been the academy's style since 1901.

This year, amid the start of talks on Turkey's entry in the European Union, much literary wishful thinking had been directed at Orhan Pamuk, the author of the widely acclaimed Snow. Pamuk is to go on trial in Turkey on 16 December for commenting in a newspaper interview this year that his country had been guilty of a 20th- century genocide of Armenians and Kurds. His supporters felt a Nobel Prize would be timely.

Last year, pundits expected the world's most prestigious literary prize to mark the a year of turmoil in the Middle East with an award for the Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said, also known as Adonis, or the Israeli writer Amos Oz. Instead, the Swedish Academy chose the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, who is at least an anti-American, anti-war activist. In 2001, after the 11 September attacks, the politically correct might have wished for a Muslim laureat to raise morale in a community that felt increasingly isolated. Instead they were given V S Naipaul, a writer who is almost dismissively anti- Islam.

Swedish journalist Jonas Thente says the prize can best be analysed as a round-robin of the 18 seats on the first floor of the old Stockholm stock exchange, the home of the Swedish academy. 'Every year, there are two winners, the laureat and the academy member who has lobbied for him or her for years, maybe decades,' he said. 'With a little bit of knowledge about the academy members, you can work out a kind of nominator-winner's list.'

The Thente theory holds that the 1997 award to the Italian leftwing playwright Dario Fo was the work ofthe academy poet and dramatist Lars Forssell. The choice of Gao Xingjian in 2000 was a triumph for Gran Malmqvist, the Chinese writer's translator for the previous 12 years. He similarly explains the choice of the Hungarian Holocaust writer Imre Kertsz in 2002 and that of Jelinek last year. 'Every academy member has his or her own agenda and their own personal favourites,' Thente said. 'It is human.' But if his theory is correct, it makes a mockery of the formal nomination process under which 3,000 letters are sent every year to universities and leading literary figures, inviting suggestions.

The academy may exude an air of rising above reigning trends, but look at the list of past winners and it is clear that it is sensitive to outside reactions. In the early years of the Nobel Literature Prize, a disproportionate number of Nordic writers were honoured. Observers say that, as a result, the academy will never award the literature prize to the very worthy, living Swedish poet Thomas Transtrmer.

It is not difficult, either, to draw up a long list of the academy's astonishing omissions. They include Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, Emile Zola, Mark Twain, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Anton Chekhov, Gertrude Stein, Eugene Ionesco and Virginia Woolf. These were passed over for the likes of the one-book wonder Pearl Buck (1938), the hardly translated Finnish writer Frans-Eemil Sillanp (1939) and the Danish novelist Karl Gjellerup (1917). Critics also claim Heinrich Bll received the prize in 1972 because the academy did not have the courage to reward the work of his countryman Gnther Grass, who had to wait until 1999 for his prize.

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The Annual Prize for Literature; A NOBEL CALLING 100 YEARS OF CONTROVERSY ; Not Many Women, a Weakness for Anglo-Saxon Literature and an Ostrich- like Ability to Resist Popular or Political Pressure. Alex Duval Smith Reports from Stockholm on the Strange and Secret World of the Swedish Academy
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