Tolstoy’s Non-Nobel.

Back in 2005 I said “Second-guessing the Swedish Academy’s often bizarre choices and omissions for the Nobel Prize in literature is a time-honored game,” and one of the prime examples of omission is Leo Tolstoy, who lived for a decade after the institution of the prize and was never awarded it. I confess I’ve always enjoyed rubbing their nose in that myself (from a distance, that is; I’ve never actually met the Academy). Now I learn, from Dmitry Bykov (whose thoughts on the subject can be read here, in Russian) that it was his own choice. I’ll quote the English-language account by Kristin Masters here:

[…] In 1902, Tolstoy was again passed over for the prize; the Nobel committee awarded it to Theodor Momms[e]n. Losing out on the prize didn’t seem to bother Tolstoy much. In fact, he said “it saved me the painful necessity of dealing in some way with the money…generally regarded as very necessary and useful, but which I regard as the source of every kind of evil.” Despite Tolstoy’s own conciliatory reaction, the furor continued. A Swedish newspaper published an editorial in 1902 calling the the Nobel committee “unfair craftsmen and literature amateurs.”

Three years later Tolstoy published Great Sin [the long essay «Великий грех», supporting the theories of Henry George about the “sin” of landed property]. […] The Russian Academy of Sciences decided that the work truly enhanced Tolstoy’s standing as a writer, so they decided to nominate him again for the Nobel Prize. The nomination letter was approved by all of Russia’s outstanding academic institutions and was accompanied by a copy of Great Sin.

But Tolstoy still genuinely wanted nothing to do with the prize. The moment he learned of the nomination, he took up a pen for himself. Tolstoy wrote to his friend Arvid Jarnefelt, a Finnish writer. He entreated Jarnefelt, “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.” Whether Jarnefelt intervened or the committee had designs of its own, Tolstoy didn’t win the prize. Giosuè Carducci did.

Bykov elaborates on the non-award as follows:

I believe that Tolstoy is perhaps not suited for the Nobel based on three criteria. First, Tolstoy is a figure of such real significance that awarding him the prize would introduce a certain triviality into his life as a prophet, an elder, the leader of a fairly influential sect, a serious critic of the government, and so on. It is not proper for such a man to chase after the signs of earthly glory. […] The second criterion […] is that Tolstoy, generally speaking, is a figure of world significance, and the Nobel is very fond of encouraging people who put one or another territory on the geographical map, like [García] Márquez, for example. You can’t say Tolstoy put Russia on the world map, that he somehow described Russian specificity. On the contrary, Tolstoy is a world genius […]. And the third reason is that Tolstoy does not qualify for the Nobel Prize at all. This may sound strange, but Nobel, when he […] bequeathed the prize, demanded quite specifically — it’s written in his will — that the literary prize should be awarded for works that affirm idealism. This is extremely difficult to say about Tolstoy.

Я как раз полагаю, что Толстой под Нобеля, что ли, не подпадает по трем критериям. Во-первых, Толстой ― фигура действительно столь значительная, что присуждение ему премии вносит какую-то суетность в его жизнь пророка, жизнь старца, жизнь вождя довольно влиятельной секты, жизнь серьезного критика правительства и так далее. Негоже такому человеку гоняться за знаками земной славы. […] Вторая вещь, второй критерий, по которому Толстой туда не подходит,― Толстой, вообще говоря, фигура значения всемирного, а Нобель очень любит поощрять людей, которые наносят на географическую карту ту или иную территорию, как, например, Маркес. Нельзя сказать, что Толстой нанес Россию на карту мира, что он как-то описал русскую специфику. Толстой, наоборот, всемирный гений […]. И третья причина, по которой Толстой совсем не тянет на Нобеля. Вот это странно звучит, но Нобель, когда учреждал, когда завещал премию, требовал совершенно конкретно, у него это прописано, чтобы литературная премия присуждалась за произведения, утверждающие идеализм. Относительно Толстого сказать это крайне трудно.

As always with Bykov, you can argue with him, but he’s always fun to read and makes one think. Another example of this I recently happened on:

Why was Esenin better at plays than prose? Because prose requires the ability to spend some time as a different person.

Почему Есенину пьесы удавались лучше, чем проза? Потому что для прозы требуется умение побыть другим человеком.

I’ve never read either his plays or his prose and have no idea if it’s a just remark as applied to Esenin, but it’s certainly a generally applicable point.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Can’t say that Halldór Laxness strikes me as “affirming idealism.”

  2. The following is as much as I knew. I guess I’m 72 years out of date.

    The Permanent Secretary of the Committee, Carl David af Wirsén, bitterly opposed Tolstoy because of his political views. In his report to the Academy as chairman of its Nobel Committee, he said that while he admired “immortal creations” like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he could not condone Tolstoy’s social and political theories, nor his presumption in rewriting the New Testament “in a half mystical, half rationalistic spirit,” nor, finally, his denial to both nations and individuals of the right of self-defense. “Confronted by such hostility to all forms of civilization,” he wrote, “one feels dubious.” Through his personal pressure, he succeeded in keeping the Prize from the great Russian both then and in the years to come. Wirsén was also successful in opposing an award to Ibsen and to Strindberg, and he almost kept it from going to Selma Lagerlöf.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t know how seriously the committee has taken the “affirming idealism” notion over the decades, but it does seem likely that if you look back at old choices who do not seem to have aged well, excessive sentimentality or didacticness is more likely to be a feature of the author than excessive nihilism or loucheness.

    I am reminded by free association of my favorite 21st century rock-music composition relating to the Nobel Prize in LIterature, written with the conceit of being an email (that just happens to scan and rhyme) from a loser to a winner, and titled more fully than this clip indicates as “From Philiproth@gmail to”

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    The one ophthalmologist ever to win the Nobel Prize, Allvar Gullstrand, has as his main claim to distinction his consistent forceful opposition, when himself a member of the prize committee, to awarding the Nobel Prize to Albert Einstein; indeed he actually managed to prevent the award being given for Einstein’s work on Relativity.

    No ophthalmologist actually likes Gullstrand. When next you see one, try saying “What about Gullstrand’s Eye, then?” and watch them mutter imprecations (unless they’ve finally succeeded in forgetting all about the useless thing.)

    (The horrid man did invent the slit lamp, which actually is kinda useful.)

    Grahame Greene is supposed to have been denied the Literature Prize because of personal animosity from some member of the committee.

  5. loath though i am to disagree with our host, the last bykov line seems just plain backwards, and trivially so, unless the translation is off (i’m one of the non-russophone habituées): writing prose doesn’t require you to inhabit multiple subjectivities, but writing plays certainly does!

    (the line did remind me of the explanation walter kissinger – apparently an unaccented english speaker – gave for his brother’s thick german accent: “but you see, henry doesn’t listen!”)

  6. There are far more horrid people than Gullstrand (and we can both think of a particular present-day one) besmirching your profession.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    True … though I don’t think he practices much ophthalmology these days.

    Rand Paul, though horrid enough to be going on with, is fortunately not in the same league.

    Still, we always have Zamenhof.

    On a happier note, there seem to be no genocidal copy-editors. I think we can draw our own conclusions from this.

  8. Whatever one thinks about Tolstoy and the Nobel, I think we can all agree that Giosuè Carducci was clearly worthy.

  9. John Cowan says

    Then again, there is also Anastasia Vasilieva.

  10. There are many things in Bykov’s descriptions to take an issue with, but the most puzzling is that Tolstoy has not been affirming idealism. What?

  11. @LH, @rozele: Bykov is referring to Pugachev and The Country of Rascals as “plays” although they are commonly labeled long poems (поэмы) in the form of dramatic dialogue. I am only aware of one staging of Pugachev, by Yuri Lyubimov in 1967 with Vladimir Vysotsky as Khlopusha. (Lyubimov excelled at staging poetry.) In the next sentence, Bykov claims that “Yesenin can only give voice to the inner demons tearing him apart… all his playwrighting is Yesenin’s endless argument with himself.” (Some say the same of Dostoyevsky’s prose.)

    Bykov then comments on an excerpt from The Country of Rascals (Страна негодяев). It’s a curious “play” set during the Russian Civil War: a group of Bolsheviks trying and failing to catch an anarchist “bandit.” The Bolsheviks include Chekistov (a Commissar whose dirty language makes Russian peasants blush), Zamarashkin (from замарашка, a little unwashed creature) and Rassvetov, a visionary Bolshevik (from рассвет, dawn).


    Listen, Chekistov!
    Since when
    you’ve become a foreigner?
    I know you’re a Jew
    and your last name is Leybman.
    So what if you’ve lived abroad?
    Your home is in Mogilev.


    No, Zamarashkin!
    I am a citizen from Weimar,
    and I came here not as a Jew
    but as one having a gift
    of taming fools and beasts.
    I’m cussing and I’ll persist in
    cursing you for a thousand years
    because I need to use the privy
    and there are no privies in Russia.

    It gets more interesting soon afterwards when Chekistov says he has the soul of a Hamlet but this comment is getting too long.

  12. Thanks, Alex! And there’s no such thing as “too long” — comment is free, as somebody said. The margin is large enough to contain all your proofs!

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    Imagine how gassy and bloviating Tolstoy’s acceptance speech would have been! Here’s a nice excerpt (English translation from the official Nobel website) of the speech given by the first “Russian” writer (who was at the time a stateless emigre) to win the Nobel for Literature viz. Bunin, in 1933:

    “For the first time since the founding of the Nobel Prize you have awarded it to an exile. Who am I in truth? An exile enjoying the hospitality of France, to whom I likewise owe an eternal debt of gratitude. But, gentlemen of the Academy, let me say that irrespective of my person and my work your choice in itself is a gesture of great beauty. It is necessary that there should be centres of absolute independence in the world. No doubt, all differences of opinion, of philosophical and religious creeds, are represented around this table. But we are united by one truth, the freedom of thought and conscience; to this freedom we owe civilization.”

  14. Imagine how gassy and bloviating Tolstoy’s acceptance speech would have been!

    Yes, one shudders to think. And the award to Bunin was one of the Academy’s better moments.

  15. I understand that all that is needed to avoid a Nobel prize is to nominate yourself. May have to do this each year.

    Of course, as Professor Rutherford, “I never knew I was a Chemist” discovered, there is more than one prize.

    Would Tolstoy have accepted the Peace prize?

  16. An interesting question. Maybe so!

  17. January First-of-May says

    Then again, there is also Anastasia Vasilieva.

    When in 2021 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to some Russian guy I’ve never heard of before, the blogosphere was abuzz about how it should have obviously been awarded to Navalny instead.

    Meanwhile, I was of the opinion that there was a yet different obvious candidate – someone who personally, by his own efforts, saved world peace in the year 2021.
    That is to say, Eugene Goodman – the Capitol guard who diverted the January 6th rioters away from the then-not-yet-evacuated Senate.
    …I wonder if he got nominated.

    [Incidentally, TIL that the Nobel Peace Prize, unlike the other Nobel prizes, is awarded in Norway, not in Sweden.]

  18. Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to some Russian guy I’ve never heard of before

    They did it for your benefit.

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