Second-guessing the Swedish Academy’s often bizarre choices and omissions for the Nobel Prize in literature is a time-honored game; Andrei Krasnyashchikh has done a particularly good job, presenting two columns, one “Swedish Academy (without A.P. Krasnyashchikh),” the other “Swedish Academy (with A.P. Krasnyashchikh).” He gives not only names but short versions of the reasons, both the Academy’s and his; on a couple of occasions he has the same laureate but changes the reason (as for Saint-John Perse). I’m afraid it’s only available in Russian, but I’ll present a few of his alternate selections here. There are the no-brainers: Chekhov instead of Mommsen (1902), Ibsen for Sienkiewicz (1905), Tolstoy for Eucken (1908), Rilke for Reymont (1924), Joyce for Karlfeldt (1931), Fitzgerald for Pearl Buck (1938), Akhmatova for Johannes V. Jensen (1944). He takes advantage of war years when the Academy abstained to slip in some of his favorites: Jack London in 1914, G.K. Chesterton in 1918, Celine in 1940, Musil in ’41, Pound (yay!) in ’42, and Erich Maria Remarque in ’43. His 1973 prize goes to V.V. Nabokov instead of Patrick White, and his 2000 prize to Tom Stoppard rather than Gao Xingjian. There are some I disagree with (Salinger and Lem, for example), but on the whole it’s an excellent list. And I love his reason for Borges (instead of Seifert, in ’84): “Because it’s high time, he’s 85 already (his jubilee, by the way), and at any moment he could… Well, you understand. And that business with Pinochet is long forgotten.” (Via Avva.)


  1. Hindsight is 20/20 etc.
    Give me a month and I’m sure I could come up with 300 authors who were deserving of the Nobel and I’d still be omitting some brilliant writers. For instance I’d never have heard of Szymborska had she not won the Nobel.
    Anyone who thinks Patrick White shouldn’t have won the Nobel has a tin ear worthy of Emperor Joseph II. Or that he hasn’t actually read anything by Patrick White. If that is the case, why presume that he’s less worthy than Nabokov? (Here I’m cruelly hamstrung by the fact that I don’t know Russian)
    There’s always the danger of assuming that a forgotten author is necessarily a not-so-great author. While that is certainly the case with Prudhomme what I have read of Peasants by Reymont is brilliant. It’s been one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for a good five years. Some authors are very well known in some language-areas and unknown in others. To some the inclusion of Czech they’ve never heard instead of the greatest author of their language-area may seem preposterous, but may make perfect sense to Eastern Europeans.
    That being said, there are a few prizewinners which are just plain weird, Churchill and Russell spring immediately to mind, and the first few decades are hit and miss, with an emphasis on the miss. But all in all I think that the Swedish Academy has been rather good at its job.
    Also, I seem to remember that before the first award was given Tolstoy declared that he would never accept it.

  2. Hmm… some research has turned up this article from Pravda which claims that Tolstoy would have rejected it, and has this quote:
    “If it was meant to happen, then it would be very unpleasant for me to refuse from it. That is why, I have a favor to ask. If you have any links in Sweden (I think you have), please try to make it so I would not be awarded with the prize. Please, try to do the best you can to avoid the award of the prize to me.”
    But it’s from 1906. So my memory was wrong here.

  3. is a tabloid. Don’t trust it any more than you’d trust the National Enquirer. It’s not related to the Pravda newspaper or what’s left of it, either (not that Pravda was ever trustworthy, of course).
    There could have been such a letter from Tolstoy, or there might not have been. is no reason to decide either way.
    Brodsky was a brilliant, outstanding poet, by the way, and deserved his Nobel prize on the strength of his verse – whether or not there has been politics involved (and judging by the history of the Nobel prize, there always seems to be).

  4. Well yes… the article isn’t exactly trustworthy, I thought it wouldn’t need stating. But I remember a professor saying something similar in a Tolstoy course I took a few years ago.
    I’ve never liked Brodsky much, but a close friend of mine, whose tastes I respect, thinks the world of him. Same goes for Rilke, I don’t like him much, but my wife near-worships him, and I’m certainly not going to disparage my wife’s tastes 🙂

  5. I am just a little shocked to find the adjective alternate where British, Australian, South African, New Zealand, etc. alternative is meant. Perhaps I should not be shocked, since it seems to be standard American. SOED includes this, for alternate:
    3 Alternative. (rare bef. 20.) Chiefly N. Amer. L16.
    But the standard and basic British acceptation is presented in these definitions:
    1 Of things of two kinds, from two sources, etc.: coming each after one of the other kind etc. E16.

    4 Of a sequence etc.: consisting of things of two kinds etc. coming each after one of the other kind. M17.
    Four questions:
    1. How do Americans express the SOED sense given in 1 or 4, above: with alternate, or how?
    2. If with alternate, how do they avoid confusion with sense 3?
    3. Do you, LH and other educated and reflective American speakers, pronounce the adjective alternate with accent on syllable 1 or syllable 2? I have heard both pronunciations, but cannot vouch for the “quality” of the speakers’ idiolects.
    4. Might the accenting affect the sense?

  6. Céline in 1940“? I must live in a alternate universe.

  7. Kári: I have read White, I don’t have a tin ear, and I think Nabokov is unquestionably a better choice. White is a fine writer, but there are lots of fine writers (as you point out); Nabokov is the kind of genius of whom any century is lucky to have one or two. Same goes for Brodsky, but there not knowing Russian is a fatal handicap, so I’ll give you a pass on that one!
    Noetica: 1. Alternate; 2. Context; 3/4. I doubt any American has said al-TER-nate for at least a century. Different usages always seem strange at first, but our ways seem perfectly normal to us! Mind you, I could perfectly well have used alternative in my post title, but I liked the rhythm better this way.
    Jimmy: I think part of the point of the list was to remove politics entirely from the equation, a goal with which I am wholly in sympathy.
    Time that with this strange excuse
    Pardoned Kipling and his views,
    And will pardon Paul Claudel,
    Pardons him for writing well.

  8. Time that with this strange excuse
    Pardoned Kipling and his views,
    And will pardon Paul Claudel,
    Pardons him for writing well.

    Here’s hoping Time will pardon me
    And thee, betimes, for pedantry.
    If not, I cry in Time’s despite:
    “To censure so were impolite!”

  9. I think part of the point of the list was to remove politics entirely from the equation, a goal with which I am wholly in sympathy.

    I agree almost entirely, but I’m not sure the Nobels’ credibility would have survived giving Celine the award in 1940 (of all years) and Pound a gong in 1942 (I would have given it to Wallace Stevens, not Pound, in any case;) ).
    Anyway, it’s an interesting conversation-stoker and here’s my twopenny worth (at current rates, that’s almost twice as valuable as your two cents). I’d say many of the rejections and some of the figures he leaves undisturbed are questionable. Was Romain Rolland really that great? Greater than Sienkiewicz? Who on earth is Bjorne Bjornsterne? I haven’t read that much Mommsen, but if this were the 18th century Nobels, surely Edward Gibbon would have won? Was getting rid of Frédéric Mistral such a good idea? I just bought Miréio/Mireille last week so I can’t judge for myself yet, but the guy did revive the literature of an entire language. Offing Montale and Milosz? Pah. I would have given Szymborska’s prize to Zbigniew Herbert then awarded her another later on. I agree with with Kari Tulinius; I haven’t read that much Reymont, but what I’ve read is intriguing. Rilke doesn’t need the publicity and neither do the famous “non-winners”, Joyce, Nabokov, Borges et al.(Borges probably got more publicity from not winning than he would have done from the prize itself). For that reason, I would have given the hypothetical 1917 prize not to Apollinaire, but to George Bacovia.

  10. I wasn’t saying that Nabokov shuoldn’t have won the Nobel, I was just defending Patrick White. I recognize that my outburst was intemperate, and I regret suggesting that you have a tin ear. I’m just oddly touchy about White, perhaps it’s because he is so disliked in Australia.

  11. I see that for 1927 he has Andrey Bely instead of Henri Bergson, “for an impressive depiction of the breakdown of Russian society, convincingly portrayed in the novels Silver Dove and Petersburg”. I’m going to read “Petersburg” Real Soon Now…

  12. J. Cassian: “I’m not sure the Nobels’ credibility would have survived giving Celine the award in 1940 (of all years)” (emphasis mine)
    in other news, Pa Kin (Ba Jin 巴金) just died.

  13. IndigoJones says

    “I’m just oddly touchy about White, perhaps it’s because he is so disliked in Australia.”
    He is? I did not know. For why?

  14. Noetica, haven’t we discussed ‘alternate/alternative’ before? I recall being glad somebody (you, namely) justified my twitching every time I have to write the title “Alternate Materials” in architectural specifications.

  15. Sorry to hear about Ba Jin (whose nom de plume comes from the first syllable of Bakunin and the last of Kropotkin), but it’s amazing that he made it to 100 — by rights he shouldn’t have survived the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution!
    Kári: I join IndigoJones in my ignorance and curiosity.

  16. With hindsight, I note there’s a book festival in western England that awards an “alternative Booker” (the “Cheltenham Booker”) annually for the best English novel of 70 years previously. This year’s award for 1935 went to “Blandings Castle” by PG Wodehouse, with “Mr Norris Changes Trains” by Christopher Isherwood as runner-up. From which I conclude that things really are better now and wonder what Americans novels were first published in 1935.

  17. …haven’t we discussed ‘alternate/alternative’ before?
    I can’t recall. I wouldn’t be surprised, though.
    (How was Portugal for you? Did you relish not only the sardines but also the bookshops, as I did?)

  18. I wish I had the time to properly answer that, but I’m starting a new job today. However, a little bit of googling gives me these things. Here’s an article that talks of the neglect of his work in Australia today. It begins:
    Although Patrick White’s novels are alive in the memories of those members of the Australian Society of Authors who recently voted five of them onto its list of the 40 best Australian books, one has to wonder what kind of life they lead in society at large.
    White, who in 1973 won the Nobel Prize for Literature and who, 20 years ago, was extolled as the greatest writer Australia has produced, is now available to Australian readers in editions published only in Britain – a sure sign that he is not widely read in this country. At least one of his novels, The Solid Mandala – possibly his greatest – is out of print. He is rarely cited in debates about literary value or referred to as a precedent by the coming generation of Australian writers.
    In the academy, too, White leads a fugitive existence, for reasons first fully articulated in a 1996 study by Simon During, then professor of English at the University of Melbourne. During brought White before the court of criticism on the grounds that he had failed the demands of post-colonialism, postmodernism, post-structuralism, feminism, queer theory, semiotics and cultural studies – and found him guilty on all counts. “It is hard to tolerate the White that I have criticised,” During concluded, “the elitist White, the White who fictionalised contemporary Aboriginal life away, the misogynist White, the White who affirmed inc*st, even the White who thought of himself as a genius because he was psychically sick or damaged.” [Note: The comment submission form said I couldn’t include a certain word, so I put an asterisk instead of the letter “e”]
    As far as I can tell he’s the only Nobel Laureate of the last half century whose work is out of print in his homeland. I didn’t check them all, but sampled them at random. Also, given that he was openly gay and wrote sometimes about homosexual characters it’s odd to see him criticized as someone who failed the demands of queer theory.
    Basically, what it boils down to is that Patrick White was a prickly character who didn’t lay low with his opinions. Here’s a sentence from a tribute to Patrick White (incidentally, that the ABC’s tribute to White is called “why bother with Patrick White?” is a pretty good indication of how he’s viewed in the country):
    “Patrick’s gift for hatred almost exceeded his gift for literature and, it would seem, welled not so much from vanity as self-hatred. He despised so many of us. He behaved obnoxiously”
    To be perfectly honest I’ve always been somewhat taken aback by the lack of respect he gets. The professor who taught me Australian literature said that it had taken him some effort to find his books in bookstores and that his friends and professors (he was studying in Darwin, IIRC) generally told him that Patrick White had only won because nobody understood what he was writing.
    It may be a function of him being forced on high school students to read, the best way possible to get people to dislike an author (especially one as demanding as White). I found this quote in an Australian blog:
    “I couldn’t rightly say as I haven’t attempted to read anything by White since I was 16, at high school, and had his Tree of Man foistered upon me as part of the English wider reading list – I couldn’t finish it. Although I have a number of “literary” conversations with friends over the course of a year I doubt if White is mentioned more than once in that time. Which is a bit sad, given that he is Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature.”
    And here’s another blog quote for good measure: “I think Patrick White to be one of the most unreadable authors of all time”
    Patrick White himself talked about being disliked (from his autobiography on the Nobel website):
    “a novel I called in the beginning A Life Sentence on Earth, but which developed into The Tree of Man. Well received in England and the United States, it was greeted with cries of scorn and incredulity in Australia that somebody, at best, a dubious Australian, should flout the naturalistic tradition, or worse, that a member of the grazier class should aspire to a calling which was the prerogative of schoolteachers! Voss, which followed, fared no better: it was ‘mystical, ambiguous, obscure’; a newspaper printed its review under the headline ‘Australia’s most Unreadable Novelist’. In Riders in the Chariot it was the scene in which Himmelfarb, the Jewish refugee, is subjected to a mock crucifixion by drunken workmates which outraged the blokes and the bluestockings alike. Naturally, ‘it couldn’t happen here’- except that it does, in all quarters, in many infinitely humiliating ways, as I, a foreigner in my own country, learned from personal experience.”
    That’s all I have time for now, I have to rush off to work. I know that a few quotes and articles and hearsay don’t mean anything, necessarily, but I hope that at least it gives a slight flavor.

  19. Thanks very much, and congratulations on the new job! I now understand better why he is neglected and/or resented; I’ve never been able to read the novels of Thomas Hardy (whose poetry I love) after having them forced on me in high school. I don’t know what the answer is when it comes to high school English; kids should be exposed to good writing, but there’s a grave danger of turning them off it for life…

  20. LH, you know that Pa Kin has argued for the construction of a Museum of the GPCR (in the spirit of the “dovere di memoria”)? Oddly enough, the powers that be did not seem to think he meant it for real.
    His death is of course a coincidence, but my mention of it in this thread was not entirely anodyne: in the late Seventies, a group of Western sinologists (not a few French among them) suddenly realized that, after the mysterious “suicide” of Lao She, Pa Kin was the last “giant” of Modern Chinese literature still alive. They started a campaign to rally academic and literary personalities to support him for the Nobel. They even had the not-so-clever idea to ask for Sartre’s signature. As should have been expected, he refused, through a chilling letter by Simone de Beauvoir.
    The fact is that they failed, and that no Chinese citizen has ever had the Nobel Prize (Gao Xingjian wrote his most significant works, made “unavailable” on the Mainland, in Chinese, but he was awarded as French).
    You can see a trace of that episode in Etiemble’s preface to the French edition of Hanye 寒夜, published in 1978 as Nuit glacée (Etiemble had met Pa Kin in China, and describes their encounter):
    Voilà donc l’homme dont les voyous qui régentèrent la prétendue révolution culturelle firent l’une de leurs bêtes noires. Parce qu’il ne fut, jamais ne sera un béni-oui-oui, le régime maoïste a condamné au silence l’un des quatre ou cinq plus grands écrivains du siècle, celui que l’Académie suédoise s’honorerait en proclamant prix Nobel de littérature, ce qui, peut-être, l’aiderait à trouver, sous le nouveau régime, le droit de continuer à illustrer son pays.
    For the record, It would be a lie to say that Pa Kin (I think this is the way he spelled his name when writing in French) counts among my favorite Chinese writers (I hold Lu Xun and Lao She way above), probably because Hanye was precisely the very first Chinese book I read from the beginning to the end: I was very excited at first, because I understood everything so easily, until I had to admit that the language was very similar to that of our textbooks, too neutral, not “dialectal” enough for my taste; it’s a pity, because the subject (a “modern” couple’s rupture in wartime Chongqing) was worthy.

  21. Kari Tulinius finds some very useful evidence to explain Patrick White’s apparent neglect at present, to which I’d add two factors. Firstly, the well-established cycle of reaction after an author’s death (of which Nabokov, too, is a victim; would he have anything more than a cult following if it weren’t for the continuing extra-literary notoriety of Lolita?). After White’s death and Marr’s biography a few years later, Australians probably had a glut of White, and 20-somethings who wanted to turn to him could always borrow their parents’ copies. I admit there might be an element of wishful thinking in this, but I have a few shreds of anecdotal evidence to back it up. One way or another, “neglected” books usually find the readers who need them.
    The other factor is that White was not simply a prickly individual, he was also a subversive and threatening writer in what was and is a very conventional society underneath its veneer of informality. Dinner parties won’t tolerate indefinitely a writer who not only “fails the demands of post-colonialism [et al]” but also seriously proposes that madmen and outcasts are superior to all other people. Of course, White’s squattocrat snobbery made it harder for us romantics to follow him all the way….
    Thanks for the pointer to the Krasnyashchikh list. It made me a little more respectful of the Swedish Academy (Carpentier in place of Montale? – at least White vs Nabokov is worth an argument!)

  22. Did Hendrik Pontoppidan really deserve his Nobel?

  23. Looking at the list now, courtesy of Google Translate. “F. Scott Fitzgerald – a good faith attempt to take part in the modern literary process” sounds like damning with faint praise. What is the correct translation of “Фрэнсис Скотт Фицджеральд — за добросовестную попытку принять участие в современном литературном процессе”? Or is the whole thing a parody?
    I also don’t know that Stephan Zweig and Anthony Burgess really qualify for the Nobel Prize in Idealistic Literature, although I admit that the Nobel Committee has often ignored that qualification too.

  24. I think that’s a pretty good translation, and it certainly is faint praise; I can’t say I have any idea what Krasnyashchikh meant by it, but no, the whole thing isn’t a parody. And I think ignoring the “idealistic” thing is best all around.

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