This Thursday, the next Nobel Laureate in Literature will be announced. Salman Rushdie, alas, is way down on Ladbroke’s list of betting odds along with Mahasweta Devi, but some would consider 66/1 a sporting chance — in honour of his new book, Luka and The Fire of Life, I’ve put a small punt on him. Most commentators think this might be the year of the poets, with a small group betting on the African writer Ngugi wa Thiongo.
Setting aside the merits of an individual laureate in any given year, though, a century and a bit is a good time to look back at Nobels past. The evolution of the Nobel, from a small European prize fuelled by a dynamite-maker’s fortune to perhaps the world’s most influential literary gong, is a remarkable story.
1900s to the 1930s: The first 30 years of the Nobel was a time of evolution, as the literature prize sought to define itself. The first prize went to Sully Prudhomme, no longer read or remembered, but famous for his poetry at the time. Over the next decade, the Swedish Academy’s fondness for poets, and its occasional partiality towards Europe’s writers, were both strong. Kipling was an early recipient of the Prize, and so, five years after Kipling got his gong, was Tagore. The post-World War I years were somewhat insular, and except for William Butler Yeats, Thomas Mann and G B Shaw, few Nobel laureates from that period have stood the test of time.
1930s-1950s: The 1930s saw an earnest attempt by the Swedish Academy to broaden the Prize. Alfred Nobel’s will had stressed that the Nobel in Literature was for the “most outstanding work in an ideal direction”; by the 1930s, the Academy had broadened this to mean “body of work” rather than an individual book, and had decided to interpret “ideal direction” to mean works of universal popularity and interest. That accounts for the laureates of the 1930s — from Galsworthy to Pearl S Buck, Eugene O’Neill to Pirandello, Nobel Prize winners were increasingly recognisable.
The 1940s, disrupted by World War Two, saw the Academy reaching, again, for “ideal work” — but returning, with prizes bestowed on T S Eliot and William Faulkner, to the idea of literary quality and power as the driver behind the Prizes. Andre Osterling, the new secretary of the Academy, was responsible for persuading the Academy to applaud the pioneers of modern literature, from Hesse and Gide onwards.
Many of the laureates of the 1940s had been discussed and rejected by a more conservative Academy in previous years. Osterling’s correspondence shows his discomfort with the Academy’s refusal, in the 1930s, to recognise such writers as James Joyce, and his determination not to repeat their mistakes.
1950s-1970s: Over the next two decades, the Prize looked outwards, acquiring a much broader frame of reference. With Churchill, Hemingway, Mauriac, Camus and Pasternak awarded in the same decade, the Nobel was becoming far more international than it had in the first two decades. Pasternak caused the first Nobel scandal, when Russian authorities forced him to decline his Prize — in 1964, Sartre would turn down his Nobel for loftier reasons, and in subsequent years, the Academy has carefully checked to see if authors will say aye or nay.
The 1960s and 1970s were golden years, with Solzhenitsyn, Sholokhov, Steinbeck, Kawabata, Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer among those awarded. Few women made the cut — Nelly Sachs was the only female Laureate in all these years. And in the 1970s, the infamous Graham Greene rumour began circulating: gossip to the effect that Greene’s amours with the wife of a member of the Academy cost him his gong. True or not, it was a good story.
1980s-2000: Correspondence for these years is not yet available — the Academy releases its working notes with a 50-year time lag — but it is clear that the Prize was more aware of its powers. The Nobel now had the ability to make or break writers, and Garcia Marquez, William Golding and Wole Soyinka balanced then-unknown writers such as Elias Canetti and Claude Simon.
The 1990s was the decade of the poets, with awards going to four stalwarts — Octavio Paz, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney and Wislawa Szymborska, making three of them world-famous rather than local heroes. It was also, very much so, the decade of gender equality, as the Nobel recognised Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison and Szymborska — three women in one decade. This would be matched in the 2000s, with the Nobel going to Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Mueller and Doris Lessing, but it may be argued that the 1990s had the superior list.
2000-2010: The 2000s have alternated between the obscure — Jelinek, Le Clezio — and the safe anointing of the already famous — V S Naipaul, Orhan Pamuk, J M Coetzee. The 2000s, going by the list of laureates, reflects the back-and-forth as the Nobel goes to a worthy but obscure European writer, then to a better-known “world literature” figure. Perhaps the greatest challenge the Swedish Academy faces is the challenge of growing out of its Eurocentrism and opening its doors to the whole world of literature.