View Full Version : Nobel awards - a few insights
I saw in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet that after the fifty year rule, some details have been revealed as to why, for example, Karen Blixen didn't win the Nobel in 1959. Kjell Espmark, himself a long-serving member of the Swedish Academy, sheds light on this. According to Espmark, the Nobel Committee wanted Blixen, but the Swedish Academy itself rejected their recommendation. Eyvind Johnson, then a member of the Academy, felt that the whole prize was getting too Scandinavian, and that it was time for an Italian - so outsider Quasimodo won it (off duty from Notre Dame, we presume). Funny that Eyvind Johnson didn't raise the objection of being too Scandinavian some years later when he himself and Harry Martinson, both Swedes and both members of the Academy, shared the prize...
For those who read Swedish, here's the article:
Spelet bakom Blixens f?rlorade Nobelpris | SvD (http://www.svd.se/kulturnoje/nyheter/spelet-bakom-blixens-forlorade-nobelpris_4019163.svd)
Although this all happened half a century ago, it is still very interesting. Is there a place where one can find info about other candidates in the years preceding 1959? In the Netherlands there are speculations that Simon Vestdijk was an important candidate from the mid 1950's until his death in 1971. I'm very interested to find out if he has indeed been considered by the committee.
Since the Netherlands doesn?t have any nobel laureate for literature so far (and will not have one in the coming 15 years) it would help to overcome our inferiority complex when we knew that someone has at least been close...J
Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson are both well worth reading, and much of their work is available in English translation.
Both men came from proletarian backgrounds - Johnson in the far north of Sweden, and Martinson in the south - and both had hard and difficult upbringings. Both spent a lot of time abroad - Johnson lived in Paris, and became an exponent of modernism, being influenced as a writer by Proust, Gide and Joyce. He was so prolific in so many genres that he is difficult to sum up in short compass. Anyone who liked Hamsun's Hunger would probably enjoy Johnson's Stad i ljus (Town in Light, 1928), where his starving anti-hero drifts through Paris waiting for a registered letter with money to arrive from Sweden.
The books I know best are the semi-autobiographical tetralogy Romanen om Olof (The Novel about Olof, 1928), which I've read in Swedish, but another famous sequence was the trilogy Grupp Krilon (The Krilon Group, 1941-43), part of the beredskapslitteratur (literature of readiness, emergency literature) movement of left-wing writers who wanted to prod the Swedish government out of its stance of neutrality and into active engagement in the war against Nazi Germany.
From 1946 onwards, Johnson devoted himself to historical novels, and Dr?mmar om rosor och eld (Dreams of Roses and Fire, 1949), is set in the France of Cardinal Richelieu.
Harry Martinson's father was a violent drunk who died of TB, after which his widow had a child by another man and promptly left for America, leaving her 7 children to be cared for by the parish authorities, who sent them out to various farms to be exploited as child labour. Sweden was not yet the Social Democratic liberal-leftie paradise of popular mythology!
Martinson depicted his childhood in his novels N?sslorna blomma (Flowering Nettle, 1935) and V?gen ut (The Road Out, 1936). From the ages of 16 to 22 he sailed the world in 14 different vessels, as a deckhand and stoker, and also spent time as a tramp in various countries, before finally returning to Sweden. There would follow a succession of novels, travel books, collections of poetry, and the work he is perhaps most famous for, the poetic space fantasy Aniara (1956).
I agree with Harry that both Martinson and Johnson (as opposed to Masters and Johnson) are well worth reading, not least because both men escaped their lowly and sometimes pretty grim backgrounds to become top Swedish authors.
I found the ballad "Aniara" fascinating, and I want to read "N?sslorna blomma" and "Resor utan m?l", plus other classics. And I certainly intend reading some of Johnson's travel books and novels, e.g. "Natten ?r h?r", describing his trips to Paris and Berlin just before Hitler took over, "Stunder, v?gor", and the novel "L?gg undan solen".
Both of these authors provided a breath of Europe for Sweden, which was rather self-satisfied and Germanically inward-looking at the time. One of my resolutions for 2010 is to read more Swedish literature, and these two come high up on my list, as do names such as Torgny Lindgren, Lars Ardelius, Birgitta Trotzig, plus some of the more peripheral authors whose brief bio-bibliographies features in the now forgotten tome "?tta udda" (by the equally forgotten Carl-Eric Nordberg).
I was simply wondering about the machinations, cajoling, wheeling-and-dealing, etc., that went on in the postwar 1950s between the Nobel committee and the full Academy, when it came to choosing candidates and laureates, and who were the powerful figures who could browbeat the others into submission. I imagine that Karen Blixen was also writing in the wrong language at the wrong time, in that Danish was too Scandinavian, whilst English, her adopted language, too well represented already.
Awarding Martinson (Chair 15) and Johnson (Chair 11), both long-serving members of the Academy by that time, the Nobel in 1974 was a most unfortunate episode. What fascinates me is how they managed to choose from among their peers without somehow thinking themselves "j?viga", the Swedish term for having vested interests, or being in a position of partiality.
As for Simon Vestdijk, every time I see his name I see red. I have nothing at all against the author; indeed, I even bought two of his novels yesterday in the nicest bookshop in Hilversum, Wout Vuyk, which is sadly closing down. But Dutch literary people seem quite incapable of promoting him abroad as one of the absolute foremost novelists of the Netherlands during the 20th century. His books are republished in Dutch, and a few exist in German. But he has by no means received the acclaim internationally that he should have done.
As far as I know, only two of his 52 novels exist in English, and nothing from his important Anton Wachter suite. For me he is a very Dutch author, and would give readers glimpses into Dutch life and the Dutch mentality rather well. He is, for the most, a realist, often focusing on his childhood and growing up, but also had excursions into fantasy, disembodied spirits, etc., and wrote non-fiction on such varied subjects as the music of Bruckner, Mahler and Sibelius, plus books on the essence of poetry, astrology, the origins of religion, and so on.
The Dutch will have to live with their inferiority complex regarding literature until they realise that they have had a giant in their midst - Simon Vestdijk - who is easily as good as the much-promoted Cees Nooteboom, W F Hermans, Harry Mulisch, and so on. The way for the Dutch to shake off their risible cultural inferiority complex is to start promoting Dutch classics abroad, instead of the less lasting people they tend to plug nowadays.
There was some interesting stuff published last year about how Pasternak came to win the Nobel in 1958.
2008 Nobel Prize in Literature - Page 3 - Book & Reader Forums (http://www.bookandreader.com/forums/f50/2008-nobel-prize-in-literature-17580-3.html#post271389)
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