Thomas Mann got the call five years after publishing magic mountain, Gabriel García Márquez picked up the phone when his One hundred years of solitude they were teenagers and Bob Dylan won it while the whole world dropped its jaws in surprise. The Swedish Academy never said anything to Dostoevsky, Proust, Virginia Wolf or Borges. The Nobel Prize for Literature, which has been announced on the first Thursday of October since 1901 — almost without interruption — still has a lot of mystery.
Why do we (almost) never meet the Nobel Prize for Literature?
“The proof that it follows its own rules quite strictly is that no one, except the institution itself, is capable of explaining its selection of authors with certainty,” jokes Álvaro de La Rica, doctor of literature at the Distance University of Madrid (UDIMA). For him, although it is an award with “enormous prestige” and it is assumed that those who win it enjoy “a certain literary quality” it may be tinged with a political dimension: “Borges was not given it because he supported the Argentine dictatorship” , assures to point out that he considers that there are a series of guidelines marked in the practical, the ideological, the formal and the aesthetic.
Then there are the exceptions: “I imagine that the human factor has a lot of weight there: the tensions, rivalries and influence that the members of the Academy and related figures may have,” comments de la Rica to declare that it is a “very” closed academy. “They have been very discreet with their behavior and that is why there is so much speculation, so that one says one thing and the other says the opposite,” she settles.
A situation that also occurs in this article. The novelist Gonzalo Torné disagrees as to the possible ideological influence: “They also gave it to Vargas Llosa (2010) when he had already stood for election in Peru or to Saul Bellow himself (1976), who was against public health” , exemplifies in statements to this newspaper. What they do agree on is the rotating nature of the award, which goes from one continent to another.
“The mechanisms are somewhat dictated by history”, points out the writer Jordi Corominas, “you just have to look at the frequency of the countries. France, for example, usually wins one every 8 years or so. The United States has a strange rhythm and in Spain —which has eight awards in total—, which rarely falls, we had a fixation on Marías after having had it with Cela or Vargas Llosa”, he explains.
Requirements to be an author with a chance at the Nobel Prize: have a track record, be recommended and/or nominated by professors of literature or academics and, above all, be translated into Swedish
There are few clear things about everything that surrounds the Nobel. One of them is the requirements to be an author with possibilities: to have a career, to be recommended and/or nominated by professors of literature, academics, etc. and, above all, to be translated into Swedish. So far everything is clear, the rest are tribulations more or less well-founded. “The enigma is part of his charm”, adds Corominas.
Opacity and scandals
Sooner or later everything gets dirty. Also the Swedish Academy which, in 2018, had to cancel the award ceremony and the subsequent ceremony due to a scandal that had come to light in November 2017, when Jean Claude Arnaud, husband of the poet and academic Katarina Frostenson, was accused of repeated sexual abuse.
As if that were not enough, the figure of Arnaud, a respected and influential personality on the Nordic cultural scene, began to raise suspicions about his influence. “We must not forget that Arnaud is of French origin and France is the country with the most Nobel prizes under its arm,” comments de la Rica, convinced that, as happens with national and small-scale awards, “there are also people who do their you deal with this.”
Like this one, throughout the history of the award, there have been cases that have made more than one person raise an eyebrow. One of them is that of Pablo Neruda, who received the call from the academy twice.
Perhaps Neruda is the only writer who knew that they were going to give him the Nobel and they did not give it to him until several years after he was notified for the first time. Because the authors are notified before making the announcement public since Jean Paul Sartre rejected it in 1964.
“It was all because of a conspiracy by the Uruguayan poet Ricardo Paseyro,” explains Patrizia Spinato, research doctor at the Italian CNR and author of the article, in statements to this newspaper. What remains of a Nerudian polemic in Quaderni Iberoamericanani.
Spinato explains that for the Nobel, as with many other prizes, the academy receives letters of recommendation from critics and intellectuals in general who try to influence the final decisions. This is the case of Ricardo Paseyro, a Uruguayan poet and diplomat who had worked with Neruda himself before turning against him and who, in Spinato’s eyes, was obsessed with notoriety: “I found a letter that Paseyro had sent to Giuseppe Bellini — scholar and friend of Neruda—about how he had prevented and was going to prevent the Chilean from receiving the Nobel Prize. He managed to delay it eight years ”, develops the Italian in statements to this newspaper.
The Uruguayan poet and diplomat Ricardo Paseyro, who had worked with Pablo Neruda, managed to prevent him from being awarded the Nobel Prize for eight years.
For Spinato, the figure of the Uruguayan is very interesting: “Paseyro had many contacts, we must not forget that he was a diplomat, and he managed to reach the Swedish Academy. He told them what Neruda’s weak points were and he despised him in his writings, ”he says, adding that, in addition, he always included a selection of his own poems. Let’s see if he hung up. “In the end, today no one knows who Paseyro was and everyone has read something by Neruda, regardless of the scandals and personal stories that have been known about the writer over the years,” observes the academic.
However, for all this, Spinato does not hesitate to conclude that, although it is a serious award, there is also pressure from intellectuals in general. “What you don’t know for sure is what happens at the end, after the Academy receives the letters.”
The shadow games of bookmakers
In Spain, in recent years, the name of Javier Marías has starred in many of the pools on the national cultural scene. He also happened with Camilo José Cela or Mario Vargas Llosa. The difference is that, in the end, both authors did end up getting the award. Perhaps the man from Madrid did not have time or it may be that his name never sounded beyond the desire of others. “Yes, there are candidates, of course, but that they know or say about Marías that eternal candidate for the Nobel Prize is unfounded, we cannot know,” stresses Corominas, who believes that there is talk “for free” on the subject. .
The reason is simple, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation restrict the disclosure of information on nominations for 50 years. The restriction concerns both the nominees and the nominators, as well as the investigations and opinions related to the award of the prize. All there is today is baseless speculation beyond propaganda. And that is where the bookmakers, the editorial desires and the push of critics and illustrious personalities come into play, as the singular case of Paseyro demonstrates.
“I’m sure there is a huge business around it, just like it happens with football,” comments Torné to point out an important difference between the pools and the winners in past editions. “Abdulrazak Gurnah, Svetlana Aleksievich either Coetzee at the time they were great unknowns to the world, while the writers who appear on the lists must be famous for people to vote”, he argues and adds that, sometimes, “those games” are detrimental to literature.
The world of literature is vast, unfathomable, most likely you do not know the Nobel winner, and therein lies much of its value. It’s not a competition
However, Torné stresses that these are businesses that arise around the Nobel Prize and have nothing to do with it. “What happens is that later there are people who get angry because their favorite doesn’t win. Literature goes far beyond the novelties of the year or the prizes that are given in the United States”, he criticizes.
The case of Africans —the least awarded continent— in the eyes of Torné is particular. “There is a component of nationalist ideology, it does not occur to anyone to say of a Frenchman that he does not know him. They look for it and make it look like they have read it”, he jokes, recalling how in 2021 there was, in his opinion, a kind of “idiotic anger” because in Spain the figure of Gurnah was unknown and there was not even a translated work. “The world of literature is vast, unfathomable, most likely you don’t know the Nobel Prize winner, and therein lies much of its value. It is not a competition”, concludes Torné.
Ultimately, the lists that propagate each year —in 2022 stand out Mircea Cartarescu, Margaret Atwood, Michel Houellebecq or Anne Carson—have no real basis in the eyes of all those interviewed. “Stephen King, for example, is named because he is the best-known author of the horror genre and the Murakami theme is a recurring joke,” says the novelist. “Obviously, names that meet the basic requirements are always chosen, that could be eligible for the award and that, on occasion, do get it, but it is nothing more than a blind lottery,” he points out from La Rica.
writer vs writer
If you visit the newspaper library, you can see that even Marías himself made fun of the bubble phenomenon around Cela’s “supposed eternal candidacy” in the article literary monotheism published in Diario16 of 1987, two years before the Galician, finally, the phone rang. Here is an excerpt:
“[…]Cela continues to be ‘the best living Spanish writer’ since the 1940s, to the point that such an assertion could be said to be ‘a fixed idea’ rather than one received. Has nothing really happened in literature in Spain in 40 years? Nothing at all that can call into question (if not deny) such a fixed idea, such a commonplace? I do not know of any country —except perhaps those with a very poor literary tradition— that closes all its doors to open only one wide. […] and I would add: “But Cela is also not only the best, but also the best known outside of Spain and, therefore, the only one with a chance of being awarded the Nobel Prize“. I wonder if that’s really the case.”
A phenomenon that several decades would repeat itself with a different face. Yours. However, to know if he managed to touch the award with the tips of his fingers, we will have to wait a good handful of years..