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The Nobel Syndrome

After years of controversy and bungling, the members of the secretive Swedish Academy are more divided than ever.
by Michael Specter

One Thursday in October, a man named Sture Allen will carry out what he calls "my little ritual." Just after noon, he will sit at his Louis XV desk, in the middle of a vast and immaculate office filled with mahogany furniture and marble busts that were once owned by the Swedish royal family. Then, when his golden clock strikes one, he will walk slowly to twin doors that separate his office from the Grand Hall of the Swedish Academy.

"Every year, I do it just that way," Allen said, with a gleam in his eye. "I open the door and walk into the Grand Hall, where there is–"his awed voice becomes almost too soft to hear"–the press. It is the moment that the literary world awaits each year. Publishers and writers throughout the world sit with their radios on, waiting for the news. It is the time of the highest glory, dignity, and achievement. And they are all waiting. They are all waiting for me."

Actually, they will be waiting to learn who has won this year's Nobel Prize in Literature; and Sture Allen, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy–its first among equals, both chief executive and public spokesman– is the man who delivers that message. Allen, who is sixty-nine, is not a literary scholar, a poet, or a writer. Rather, he is a linguist trained to work with computers, a fact that appalls some of his colleagues, although others in the academy consider it to be a blessing. After all, the Swedish Academy, which gives not only the Nobel Prize but also nearly fifty awards to Scandinavian writers every year, is at least in part a prize factory, and every factory needs a foreman. The Nobel is only the most celebrated of the prizes, and the richest–now worth more than a million dollars.

Each year at about this time, speculation begins to crest in Stockholm. The guessing is almost invariably wrong, and that pleases the academy members greatly. This year, the names most commonly mentioned have been those of the exiled Chinese poet Bei Dao, the perennial Flemish also-ran Hugo Claus, and the twin pillars of modern Portuguese literature, José Saramago, whose novel "The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis" is considered by many a masterpiece, and Antonio Lobo Antunes, a psychiatrist whose most important work is based on his experiences in the seventies with the Portuguese Army in Angola.

No one writing in Flemish has ever won the prize, and three years ago Claus was mistakenly told that he would be the first. There is a tradition of such disappointments– victory parties given in vain, rumors that disappear into the ether. Two years ago, I visited the Estonian writer Jaan Kross, in his flat, in Tallinn. Kross is often mentioned as a possible winner, and once, he told me, he was given "advance warning" that he would win. "I was told to stay by my phone," he recalled. "It was easy to do. I never really leave anyway. After a few hours, it was clear I wasn't going to win. It really doesn't matter, but there were some moments there when I guess I allowed myself to dream."

The best-known meditation on a prize not won belongs to Norman Mailer, who devoted the opening scenes of his 1971 book, "The Prisoner of Sex," to his reaction upon learning that he might soon be permitted to slip the letters "FNPW" (Famous Nobel Prize Winner) in front of his name. "After twenty-one years of public life," Mailer wrote of himself, "he had the equivalent of a Geiger counter in his brain to measure the radiation of advancements and awards in the various salients, wedges, and vectors of that aesthetic battlefield known as the literary pie."

Mailer is far from the only writer to entertain such Nobel desires. When I called Joyce Carol Oates not long ago to ask her what she thought of the prize, she gasped. "What have you heard?" she asked. "Do you know anything at all?"

Nobody ever does. The Nobel Prize is discussed and voted upon each year in a literary vault above the Stockholm Stock Exchange, in the city's Old Town. A committee of six is charged with directing the lengthy selection process, winnowing the field, then recommending the finalists– usually five– to the rest of the members. This year, there are six finalists; the winner will be chosen by a majority of secret ballots stuffed into an antique silver drinking mug.

Bickering is common, and the battles that kept the Nobel from Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, and even, it turns out, Anthony Burgess were often intense. The war over Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and sometime Stalinist, went on for more than a decade– until, in 1968, his Swedish translator, the imperious Artur Lundkvist, was elected to the academy and immediately made it his business to get Neruda the prize. But, in an age where privacy is increasingly rare, the rifts within the academy have never been so apparent– or so public. The conflicts today are usually portrayed as generational disputes within the academy, but the problems are also deeply personal. Members are forbidden to discuss their deliberations, but, even if they were not, they would have trouble finding the time: they are simply too busy savaging each other.

The mission of the academy was set in 1786 by its founder, Gustav III, the Francophile king of Sweden: He created it to protect the "purity, vigour, and majesty" of the Swedish language; the Nobel Prize, first awarded in 1901, was an afterthought, imposed upon the academy by the industrialist Alfred Nobel in his will. Today, the academy is widely regarded as among the last defenders– and supporters– of intellectual pursuit, a citadel of high culture in a country that in many ways has become as rootless as any in Western Europe: To surf among the television channels in Stockholm is to be bombarded not with Bergman but with Ricki Lake, Jennifer Aniston, and the best years of "Miami Vice."

During formal discussions, the academy members maintain an enforced civility– Mr., Miss, and Mrs. are used at all times– that creates a sort of verbal bubble wrap. But when the meetings end, the wrap is quickly torn away, and the academy has become so burdened by its factional disputes that animosity can no longer be contained. Stockholm's tiny literary community follows the academy's skirmishes with glee, the way some Americans dwell on the venality of the Starr report or on the excitement of a historic home-run race. The members may act like a group of English professors struggling for dominance in their department at, say, the University of Lund, but their motto– "Snille och Smak" ("Talent and Taste")– could once also have been seen as a motto for the nation.

"The academy is the ultimate symbol of Sweden as it was," I was told by Bjorn Linnell, who has been a Stockholm publisher and is now an editor at Modern Times, the country's leading monthly journal of arts and letters. "Aloof, independent, smart. But our country has lost its way these last few years. We have all the problems everyone else has. Our famous middle way has disappeared with inflation and unemployment and doubts about the future. We are no longer special. And when we look at the academy– the great academy, supposedly filled with our finest minds– it is quite obvious to most of us that they are no longer special, either."

This harsh judgment is expressed with greater frequency as the disputes within the academy become more public. Artur Lundkvist, Neruda's champion, was the first to break the Nobel code of omert, when he vowed to outlive Graham Greene, if only to deny him the Nobel. Lundkvist also denounced William Golding, who won in 1983, as "a little English phenomenon of no special interest." The true ugliness, however, did not burst fully into view until 1989, when Sture Allen, exercising his power as permanent secretary, worked to prevent the academy from taking a position on the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie over the publication of his novel "The Satanic Verses."

Allen had already infuriated several members of the academy when, two years earlier, he insisted that he, and not the poet Johannes Edfeldt, introduce Joseph Brodsky at the Prize Ceremony. His stand on Rushdie drove two of the academy's most distinguished members to resign publicly. "It was pretty simple," Gabi Gleichmann, who was the head of the pen chapter in Sweden, told me. "A sovereign nation had condemned a writer to death for expressing his views. And we expected some response from the world's most respected literary authorities. What we got was bureaucracy. Because Mr. Allen is really just a bureaucrat. After that, the Nobel committee seemed like a joke to me."

The Swedish Academy is not unlike one of those nineteenth-century British men's clubs that line Pall Mall. Its reading room, above the Stock Exchange, holds one of the largest libraries in Sweden. Members spend their time in soft leather chairs and after their meetings they adjourn to dine in a private room in one of Stockholm's best restaurants. New members, chosen secretly by the academy, can be nominated only to replace the dead (and the rules demand a month of silence before names may even be mentioned). Last year, two spaces opened. One went to the novelist and critic Per Wästberg, who is sixty-four, and is viewed in Sweden as a kindly literary diplomat. No one is more clubbable. Wästberg is known throughout the world, from Zimbabwe (President Mugabe's wife once served as nanny to his children) to New York. He has long been active in human rights, and was the first writer in Sweden to insist publicly that the country recall its ambassador from Iran over the Rushdie affair.

The other new member, the critic Horace Engdahl, who is forty-nine, has been described publicly by his enemies in Stockholm's literary community in words better reserved for an axe murderer. Engdahl's brilliance is acknowledged even by his many detractors, but his views have inspired much of the animosity that currently permeates the Swedish Academy. A post-structuralist, Engdahl is in the forefront of those critics and academics who concentrate on textual analyses, challenging all that many older members of the academy consider fundamental about literature.

Engdahl is a polite, aristocratic man who speaks in Edwardian sentences, and during one long conversation recently he claimed that envy and misunderstanding were the primary motives for the attacks on him. "My opponents set out with a violent fury to destroy me completely," he said, and he flinched– as if the day when he was named to the world's most distinguished literary academy were a hideous flashback. He went on to say, "The morning I opened Svenska Dagblat"– Sweden's leading conservative paper"– I saw the first article. It was simply a vicious, unrestrained attack on me as a human being, and as a thinker." The extraordinary assault on Engdahl was written by Knut Ahnlund, a member of the academy and one of Sweden's most famous essayists and literary historians. "Ahnlund accused me of destroying the moral nerve of this nation," Engdahl recalled. "Of ruining intellectual dialogue in this country. Of many worse things. To him, I am the devil. He is a beautiful writer but a very egocentric and petty man. He is a perfect example of what Nietzsche meant by a man of resentment."

Ahnlund, who is seventy-five, has had a primary role for more than a quarter century in the handing out of the Nobel prize. A big man, often described as "eccentric," he dresses like a lumberjack and recently published a widely admired biography that revealed the sexual obsessions of Sven Lidman, one of Sweden's prominent religious leaders. Ahnlund is open in his admiration of Norman Mailer ("I argued so many times for him"), of Bernard Malamud ("Just as deserving as Saul Bellow"), and, above all, of Portugal's José Saramago. He says that if a book doesn't have a story to tell he doesn't want to read it, and describes Engdahl's approach to literature as "cold and clinical."

Ahnlund reserves his greatest bitterness for Allen, the academy's permanent secretary, and he stopped attending meetings two years ago, having grown weary of what he views as Allen's craving for absolute power. "Sture Allen is an intellectual accountant," Ahnlund told me. "He has no vision at all. No perspective. He doesn't even read. Yet he is the leader of the Swedish Academy. What more needs to be said about that institution than that such a weak man, a man who counts verbs with a computer for his living, is in charge of it? It is a disgrace to our nation."

Allen, who parts with each word as if it were being dragged from his mouth with pliers, has grown used to such verbal cruelty. "This is a far more complicated issue than you think," he told me firmly, shaking his head as he spoke. "What has happened to this academy is complex, and I only wish I could explain it to you. But I cannot speak more fully about it, because what we do here is secret, and it must remain so. I can only add this." He then referred to four members who have left the academy in recent years, all of whom had fights with him over his management style. "They have no right to quit. A member is elected for life. They each signed a statute, they took an oath. They agreed to serve as long as they live. If they wish to sit at home, I cannot stop them. But I also do not have the power to free them from obligations they took eagerly onto themselves. That will happen only when they die."

The membership of the Swedish Academy includes novelists, poets, and critics, but very few of the nation's best writers are among them. Neither are most popular writers, like Astrid Lindgren, the author of the Pippi Longstocking books, or the poet and novelist Lars Gustafsson, who now spends much of his time in Texas. "Committees do strange things in this world," Gustafsson told me when I telephoned him in Austin. "It's not necessarily the best way to spend your time. Maybe old men with beards have better things to do than sit at a table and read mediocre books."

Many members of the academy concede that its demands on their time make it difficult for them to produce worthwhile writing of their own. "This is a job," said Per Wästberg, who was for years the editor of Dagens Nyheter, the country's most influential newspaper. "You read and read and read. In most people's eyes, the Swedish Academy should be the ultimate elite institution, where the very best writers are to be found. But many great writers are unruly bohemians and drunkards. They would be useless. The truth is that you have to find people who will read the books, come to the meetings, do it all for no money, and be happy about it."

Since 1901, when the Swedish Academy awarded its first Nobel prize– to the aging French poet Rene Sully-Prudhomme, instead of to the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (who never won it, because, in an assessment the committee later made public, he preached "theoretical anarchism and mystical Christianity")– it has become something of a tradition, in Sweden and beyond, to attack the decisions, motives, intellect, and ethics of the people who award the prize. (After Sully-Prudhomme's election, forty-two Swedish writers issued an open letter denouncing the prize and paying tribute to Tolstoy.)

"Criticism is often justified," Per Wästberg said. Before joining the academy, he wrote regular pleas for Graham Greene, always hoping that Greene would win, until he finally realized that he was wasting his time. Even now– although he is a member of the academy and of the Nobel committee– Wästberg doesn't mind mentioning that, like Ahnlund, he leans toward postwar Americans. "There are mistakes, of course," he said. "Although the academy sometimes acts like the Church, the doctrine of infallibility does not apply." He called the politically motivated 1965 award to the Soviet-era writer Mikhail Sholokhov one of the academy's worst acts– "a complete disgrace. He was not worthy in any way."

Wästberg went on, "Still, to me the critics of these awards often look like provincial fools, particularly, I am sorry to say, the Americans. Whenever somebody is named– Szymborska, of Poland, comes to mind here– there is a huge cry in America. It is surprising, and distressing, from such a literate nation. It's as if, since they don't know this work, it had to be bad."

The prize has, of course, gone to some of the finest writers of the century– Yeats, Mann, Faulkner, Hamsun, and Beckett– but somehow that has never dispelled the controversy. Neither Joyce nor Nabokov received the award, and it has gone to many writers (Pearl Buck, for example) whose accomplishments seemed thin at the time and seem even thinner today. Two people have rejected the prize: Boris Pasternak, who was pressured to by the Soviet government, and Jean-Paul Sartre, who refused out of principle. (After his death, his surviving relatives made the pilgrimage to Stockholm to demand the money that goes with the prize. They were rebuffed.)

In the Nobel's first forty-five years, only two people from outside Europe and America won the prize, but since the Second World War the range has steadily broadened, and, because it is impossible to keep track of literature written in five hundred languages, the committee relies on a large network of scouts and translators. In 1968, the Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata won, and recent winners have included the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka (1986), the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz (1988), and the South African Nadine Gordimer (1991). Committee members talk constantly of "enlarging the mandate," and they admit that they consider shock a valuable weapon. Shock, critics respond, is a curious criterion for the world's most distinguished and valuable literary prize. The academy is also accused of being far too politically correct in its choicesso eager to make a point of openness that its members have stopped reading books. One presumption, rarely expressed directly, is that somehow the prize is less legitimate if it goes to a new voice or to a member of a minority. "The ideal candidate for a Nobel Prize today would be a lesbian from Asia," according to Mats Gellerfelt, who is one of Sweden's leading literary critics and a cultural conservative; he thinks the prize has become cheapened by publicity and popularity.

Toni Morrison, who in 1993 became the first African-American to receive the prize, told me, "If a white male wins it, they would not say it's political. So I can't take the criticism seriously. I know and you know that if an African-American wins it, or somebody from a Third World country wins it– somebody who is not from America, the center of the universe– they say it's political. 'Political' is a real word, and it has real meaning. But it is a term here that is sly and suggests something not superior. When it is used this way, it is a racist term."

Today, the academy never manages to insulate itself from politics completely. Although it has established procedures that make lobbying useless, writers do what they can to advance themselves. By the beginning of each year, when the committee starts culling the list, calfskin-bound collections from bad writers all over the world start appearing at the committee offices.

"Oh, the pressure of being Swedish can get very great," Wästberg said, not entirely in jest. "Whenever I travel somewhere and am introduced as a Swedish writer, people always perk up." Wästberg went on to describe his first meeting with Pablo Neruda: "I met him in Bled in 1965. When he learned that I was a Swede, he immediately invited me to dinner. He assumed I had an influence which I did not possess. The next year, I was invited to stay in his villa by the sea. This Communist ideologue lived in astonishingly splendid baronial luxury. Each day, when he was in the mood, he would walk to the dock and signal to a fisherman with a great red flag. That meant he wanted fresh lobsters. They always appeared in a hurry. Neruda was fully obsessed with the Nobel Prize. He realized he had an adversary on the committee in Gunnar Ekelöf. Ekelöf believed that Neruda had a role in the murder of Trotsky. Neruda was counsel for Chile in Mexico at the time, and he always denied it. He once said he would outlive Ekelöf and win the prize. And he did."

Academy members insist that political considerations never affect their decisions. However, it has been noted that the Finnish writer Frans Eemil SillanpSS won the Nobel in 1939, just as the Soviet Union was attempting to make his country disappear, and that Czeslaw Milosz's selection, in 1980, came in the year that Solidarity was born in a Gdansk shipyard. Was it pure chance that Yeats won in 1923, the year after Ireland was granted its independence?

When I asked Sture Allen if politics played an important role in the prize decisions, he laughed, but the laugh was a sneer. "We care only for literary merit," he insisted. "It is not the World Cup of literature. It is not a reward for good service. We find a great writer. And that is all we do."

Why, then, has China never produced a laureate? I asked. "There was something called the Cultural Revolution that happened there," Allen replied. "It has been a problem for China. And it has been a problem for us."

I later asked about Asian writers in general and got a similar rebuff. He described reading most Pakistani and Indian writers as "wading through gibberish," and added, "Their work is usually no more than rhetoric."

Politics was clearly a problem for Borges, and Knut Ahnlund, among many others, regards his omission as unforgivable. "Borges got an award from Pinochet as an old man," Ahnlund said, with genuine anger. "That was enough to keep Latin America's greatest writer from ever winning the prize." Ahnlund added, "Of course politics matters. Look at the list. If you celebrated Stalin in Sweden, that was fineyou could win the Nobel Prize. But God help you if you were infatuated with Nazi uniforms as a little boy. Because then you were disgraced for the rest of your life."

I asked Ahnlund whether V.S. Naipaul had ever come close to winning the prize; he grimaced, then nodded. I asked him about reports that Naipaul is thought by academy members to have a cold view of humanity, and that his critical work on Islam is too controversial. "It's not any outside moral argument," Ahnlund said. "It's really only the simple fact that he never collected enough votes."

Last year, the academy took special pleasure in awarding the Nobel Prize to Dario Fo. Readers were stunned. Fo has been compared to medieval court jesters, to Jerry Lewis, and to Lenny Bruce. Never, however, to Pirandello (who won in 1934)or even to Ionesco. As a left-wing political figure (who was once banned from entering the United States) and a critic of the Vatican, he has had some impact with his monologues and plays. But are they literature?

"It's just plain ridiculous," said Roger Straus, the head of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published the works of more Nobel laureates than any other American house. "I don't even know what it is that you would call what Dario Fo does, but literature is certainly not a word that comes to mind. That award harmed the Nobel. It was a complete joke."

In Stockholm, it is said that Straus may be more right about the joke than he realizes. Like other Nobel rumors, this one bounces through the literary community, from critic to writer to playwright. Committee members smile when it comes up, and, of course, nobody will comment. "You know, for years there has been this trouble with whether to give the prize to one of two Portuguese writers," a professor who has close knowledge of the academy told me. And for years Lars Forssell, who is one of the academy members most interested in shock therapy for the moribund institution, has proposed Dario Fo. "Nobody ever took him seriously until last year," the professor said. "Then they just went and did it."

"Obviously, there are a number of great playwrights alive today," said Wästberg, who had only just begun participating in deliberations for the prize that will be awarded this year. "That goes without question. And Dario Fo is not among them. That goes without question, too."

In a time when nearly every shopping mall has a cyber café, and television commands increasing attention, it is no accident that literature's most prestigious prize is awarded in Sweden, where writers are so highly esteemed. Sweden sells more books per capita than almost any other country; the works of Nobelists remain a favorite Christmas gift, and literary achievement still matters. The academy has been compiling the definitive historical dictionary of Swedish for more than a century. ("We are now concluding the letter 'S,'" Sture Allen told me with great pride. "The last volume should be published by the year 2017.") Not surprisingly, prizes, particularly the Nobel Prize, are among the few enduring traditions that keep together the idea of a world literature.

"Goethe coined the phrase 'world literature,'" said Engdahl, the controversial post-structuralist who will almost certainly lead the academy in the coming years, "and it rested at the time on a thin layer of upper-class people. They all knew each other and spoke French and Latin. A person like Goethe could claim that he knew everything of importance in literature. Today, there are no such persons. Universities specialize. The world is so fragmented now. This academy is one of the only places where the concept of a world literature still matters. This year, there is certainly no obvious winner. Various tastes are in competition, and nobody can predict the result. Whoever that person is will be criticized– as will we. But won't the result really only aid the literary enterprise we all so dearly love?"

Outside Sweden, most of the academy's work goes unnoticed. Little attention was paid last year when it awarded the Bellman Prize, which honors "a truly outstanding Swedish poet," to Eva Runefelt, whose spare, telling style has established her as one of Sweden's finest young writers. I invited Runefelt to meet me for a drink and to talk about the work of the academy, although she is not a member.

We met at the Grand Hotel, the place where Nobel laureates stay when they come to collect their medals. This week, the Rolling Stones were in town. The Stones, their entourage, and about three hundred groupies had turned the stately lobby into an upmarket staging area for a rock concert. I nevertheless spotted Runefelt, who had told me, "I'm blond. And I'll be wearing black."

In many respects, the forty-five-year-old Runefelt is what King Gustav's academy is really about. Of her prize money–the Bellman is worth about thirty thousand dollars– she asked, "How could I not be grateful to the academy for that? Do you have any idea what that kind of money means to a poet who is trying to live by her writing?"

It means a good deal. Even for a fine writer like Runefelt, earning much more than ten thousand dollars in a year from poetry would be impossible. "It's not as if we have patrons of the arts," she said.

The Nobel is unlikely to be given to any Swedish writer (although the poet Tomas Transtromer is said to have been shortlisted). Yet no other literary prize so obsesses the Swedes. One day, I asked Maria Schottenius, the culture editor of the liberal daily Expressen, why that was true. She replied without hesitation, "What do we have in Sweden? We have Volvo, smorgasbord, Björn Borg, and the prize. How can the prize not matter? It is the fashion to laugh and say we are above it. But we are not. When the academy seems foolish, we feel foolish, too. And when the prize sinks, so do we."

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