Magazine article Compass: A Jesuit Journal

Nobel Moved Away from the Mainstream

Magazine article Compass: A Jesuit Journal

Nobel Moved Away from the Mainstream

Article excerpt

In my daydream, I'm in Stockholm on the last day of December 1969. I've been here as a reporter doing a story on the war crimes tribunal that Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre have been holding at the invitation of the Swedes, who are very opposed to the Vietnam War. I've also looked in on the American draft resisters in Sweden. And I've inquired how Swedish social democracy is doing in the sixties.

What a decade it's been!

But in my daydream I'm seated with a friend named Sven. There is a bottle of schnapps. Before the bottle is finished, the famous decade will be over. Midnight! We'll be into the 1970s.

Our conversation gets around to the Nobel Prizes.

"I think you'll be seeing a change in the Nobel Prizes in the 1970s," Sven says. "The mentality has changed here, you know. We're very connected with the Third World now.

"Old Alfred Nobel was a strange bird, eh? In his lifetime he was a fairly typical tycoon, and spent more time on the Riviera than back here in Sweden with his dynamite factories. He was into Russian oil wells too--and this was well before we had any idea that Russia would end up Bolshevik. Alfred didn't live to see the twentieth century. He died in 1896.

"Then, suddenly, his will is opened. Consternation! There's this strange idea of honouring the world's most humane and brilliant minds with a prize. Mostly scientists--he was a scientist himself--but he had his peace and literature prizes too.

"Well, it takes until 1903 to actually get the system going.

"The prize for literature is to honour writers who lift humanity up to higher things; the winners will be chosen by the Swedish Academy and receive their prizes from the hands of the king. No less! The winner then gets to make a short speech in his language on what it is he's trying to lift humanity to. What he's trying, or what she's trying--for early on, some women writers were chosen, like Sigrid Undset and Gabriela Mistral.

"In our youth, Malcolm, we've seen the great western bestsellers win the prize. Quality writers, yes, but world-famous, like Camus, Hemingway, Hermann Hesse.

"That's where I think you're going to see a change."

Sven's eyes crinkled with pleasure as the schnapps went down. Snowflakes swirled outside the window.

"Because you see, we Swedes speak a little-known language ourselves. We're very concerned about small cultures, and culture as a tool for economic development. I think you'll be seeing some literatures honoured that have never been honoured before. I think you'll see more politics, left, right, centre. And hence I think the big French, English and German guns will be silenced a little. The prize will move away from mainstream taste to a sort of Lutheran intellectual missionary work. That's my guess. The prize will throw in its influence with this cultural revolution we've been seeing, a little. It will try and help the century end a little less imperialistically than it began.

"You know, with his millions and his arms-maker's troubled conscience, old Alfred has had a damned strong influence on this century of ours. No? It's partly the quarter of a million dollars the winner receives. But it's not just that."

                        Nobel Prizes for Literature

1970  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
      (b. 1918), Russian novelist,
      then in exile
1971  Pablo Neruda
      (1904-1973), Chilean poet
1972  Heinrich Boll
      (1917-1985), West
      German novelist
1973  Patrick White
      (1912-1990), Australian novelist
1974  (jointly) Eyvind Johnson
      (1900-1976), Harry
      Martinson (1904-1978),
      both Swedish novelists
1975  Eugenio Montale
      (1886-1981), Italian poet
1976  Saul Bellow
      (b. … 
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