Hello Gentle Reader
In 1969 the Swedish Academy decided to bestow the Nobel Prize for Literature onto the Irish playwright and novelist: Samuel Beckett, with the citation: “for his writing, which - in new forms for the novel and drama - in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.”
As a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Samuel Beckett was often a polarizing figure. In 1968, Beckett was considered a forerunner for the award, along with the French writer and politician Andre Malraux; but the Swedish Academy chose to compromise with the Japanese master of the psychological novel, Yasunari Kawabata. The battle regarding Samuel Beckett and Andre Malraux continued into 1969. The Swedish Academy once again divided between the two authors.
On the one side sat, Anders Österling who was then Chairman of the Nobel Committee. Österling rallied members of the Swedish Academy which opposed Samuel Beckett receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. Anders Österling retained his perspective that Samuel Beckett was a proprietor of nihilism and propagated this perspective in his dramatic works and novels. In bestowing the award on Beckett, Österling feared that it would significantly pollute and damage the awards reputation, and betray Alfred Nobel’s will referencing: “the person who, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction.” In 1968, Österling staked out his position with fervor, stating:
“I do not dispute the artistic effect of Beckett’s dramas, but misanthropic satire (of the Swift type) or radical pessimism (of the Leopardi type) has a powerful heart, which in my opinion is lacking in Beckett.”
Anders Österling maintained this same opinion again in 1969 when he described Samuel Beckett’s work as:
“On Beckett [ . . . ] the serious question on whether an authorship of this demonstratively negativistic or nihilistic character should be considered to fulfil the Nobel Prize’s idealistic intentions rises itself. It could be argued that his plays behind their depressive motives hide a secret defence of the humanistic, even though it only is expressed ironically and indirectly. Even if such an interpretation is possible, with more or less subtle and far-fetched reasoning, the fact remains that Beckett’s whole oeuvre offers the least possible stimulus for the threatened sense of life in our contemporary times. In the eyes of most it remains an artistically staged writing, characterised by a bottom-less contempt for the human condition.”
Instead, Anders Österling promoted André Malraux once again. This time around there was no fail safe or third place candidate to be presented; or if they were they lost out on the opportunity. The Swedish Academy was locked in a stalemate between Samuel Beckett and André Malraux.
Then Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Karl Ragnar Gierow refuted the open protests of Anders Österling. Karl Ragnar Gierow argued that Samuel Beckett was a revolutionary and revitalizing force within theatre. Gierow had strong ties and connections to theatre world; as the Managing Director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre Gierow actively staged controversial and new forms of theatre, including productions of: Bertolt Brecht and Nobel Laureate Eugene O'Neill. Samuel Beckett came as a powerful fresh voice within the dramatic sphere as someone who moved away from the realism and naturalism expressed by previous playwrights. Karl Ragnar Gierow praised Samuel Beckett’s literary value, and fought against the misrepresentation that his work was a bottomless void of nihilism, so eloquently characterized by Anders Österling.
“[ . . . ] artistic passion, consistent purpose, creative power and deep humanity. The last is of course not the least important: Beckett’s devotion. That he paints everything black in his writing is, as I experience it, not an expression for nihilism and animosity against life but on the other hand for a deeply wounded idealism. He describes the human as we have all seen it, in the moment it has suffered its deepest violation, and he seeks the bottom of humiliation with a belief in life, despite everything, because even there, perhaps first and foremost there, exists the possibility of obtaining redress. From this his oeuvre gets his purifying strength, and in the long row of Nobel laureates he is in my eyes one of the few, whose writing is marked by idealism.”
Karl Ragnar Gierow adamantly opposed the case to award André Malraux the Nobel Prize for Literature. Gierow along with four other members of the Swedish Academy thought that Malraux’s position as a minister under Charles de Gualle’s government could contort the prize to being criticized for having political inclinations of favours. Karl Ragnar Gierow went so far as to insinuate that André Malraux as minister of culture had supported censorship and cultural oppression outside of an atypical dictatorship.
This skirmish within the Swedish Academy became the diving platform for the academy to seek greater internal autonomy and heights within its own structure. Previously the Nobel Committee drafted and submitted a singular report to the rest of the Swedish Academy of who it believed should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, based off of the submissions received. The divide between Beckett and Malraux pushed for the Nobel Committee members to write individual reports of who they thought should receive the Nobel Prize for Literature and why, which inevitably solicit greater discussion, conversations and debates within the academy.
Ultimately Samuel Beckett would go on to receive the award. Anders Österling, however, refused to give the Nobel Ceremony speech which provides critical praise of the authors work. Apparently, Österling did not want to praise the ghost poetry and nihilistic propagation of Beckett. Instead Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Karl Ragnar Gierow gave the speech in lieu of. Samuel Beckett however did not attend the ceremony to receive the prize, nor did Beckett deliver a Nobel Lecture.
The year 1969 was also the first year Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. When discussing the potential of awarding the Gulag Monk the Nobel Prize for Literature, concerns were raise about the possibility of the Soviet Union interfering in the procession, such as prohibiting the author to travel to receive the award, or blatantly refuse it. The Swedish Academy, however did view Solzhenitsyn as a relevant and revered writer working in the former Soviet Union, and perhaps being one of the greatest voices of dissidence in the world and in Russian literature; but the Swedish Academy wanted to avoid tragic political consequences from befalling the author. A year later though Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was deemed suitable to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, after only being nominated twice. Not surprisingly the author could not receive the award personally, out of fears that the then Soviet Union would block his request to reenter if he chose to travel to Stockholm. There were discussions about the possibility of Solzhenitsyn accepting the award at the Swedish embassy in Moscow, but the Swedish government refused the proposal in order to avert further strain in their diplomatic relationship with the Soviet Union. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did not receive the award until 1974 after he was expelled and entered exile from the Soviet Union.
There is no doubt Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is and was a worthy Nobel Laureate. It is still curious that he was awarded after only being nominated twice, while other Nobel Laureates were nominated for years prior to winning the award, as in the case of Samuel Beckett. Solzhenitsyn’s work is a powerful witness account and testimonial of the then officially denied gulag and forced labour camp prison system of the former Soviet Union. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s wok encompasses novels and short stories, whereby the author utilizes philosophy and historical accuracy to depict the conditions of the former Soviet Union, specifically the unique historical tragedies of the Soviet Union. His themes were humanistic in philosophy and perspective, especially the moral necessity for resisting evil, be it: political, social, or spiritual in nature. His entire literary career and work was built around the novels and short stories that provide a critical autopsy of the failings of the Soviet Union, its lacking humanity; its deception of the everyday people by perpetrating itself as their guardian; and its violent and cruel nature executed through its failed ideals, and political propagation. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn work is critically assessed as political in nature. To be blunt there are few ways in which Solzhenitsyn’s work can be critically measured. His work is encapsulated in a specific point in history, providing an account of the terrors and horrors of that time, and the moral obligation of the individual to resist, and of course those consequences for resistance. All of Solzhenitsyn’s work revolves, depicts, and criticizes the former Soviet Regime. These otherwise historiographic narratives record and recount a bygone era of Russian and global history, providing an intimate overview of the workings of a political system that not only failed in the long term, but also one which sought oppress its populace through aggressive draconian retributive actions, to dissuade any notion considered dissident or curiosity. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s award was considered political, and unfortunately there is very little room to view his award, considering the context and nature of his work. The Swedish Academy expressed concern and reservations about awarding in him 1969 because of the precedence of previous Russian writers such as Boris Pasternak, who were pressured into refusing the Nobel in years past. It will be interesting to read the Swedish Academy’s deliberations in 1970 when they choose to award, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Other writers who were nominated in 1969 and would later win were:
· Pablo Neruda – Won 1971
· Heinrich Böll – Won 1972
· Patrick White – Won 1973
· Eyvind Johnson & Harry Martinson – Won 1974
· Eugenio Montale – Won 1975
· Elias Canetti – Won 1981
· Jaroslav Seifert – Won 1984
· Claude Simon – Won 1985
· Günter Grass – 1999
Of these nominated writers who would eventually win, the Italian poet Eugenio Montale, and the German postmodern postwar fabulist Günter Grass received five nominations each. At this time of nomination, Grass was only 42-43 years old, but had already published his hugely successful “Danzig Trilogy,” (“The Tin Drum,” “Cat and Mouse,” and “Dog Years,”). Despite the persistence of nominations it would be another thirty years before Günter Grass would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Eugenio Montale on the other hand would be awarded in five years. Eugenio Montale was considered one of the most important Italian language poets of the Twentieth Century. Montale was considered a striking revolutionary voice in Italian language poetry. Much like previous Nobel Laureate and countrymen, Salvatore Quasimodo; Eugenio Montale was described as a hermetic poet, a classification the poet disagreed with. Despite his objections with the poetic cataloguing assigned to his work, Montale’s work worked against the prescribed poetic notions of the time. Where other poets wrote in embellished and exaggerated poetic pomp, Montale wrote in a refined personal and private poetic form. His work was noted for being difficult to discern and comprehend by a casual reader; as Montale, sought to refine and reduce experiences away from external physical descriptions into a more refined and condensed ethereal emotive perspective. Nobel Laureate and poet, Joseph Brodsky noted that Eugenio Montale’s work more aptly to be compared with a man muttering to himself.
A certain brand of French authors was almost nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature:
· Alain Robbe-Grillet
· Nathalie Sarraute
· Robert Pinget
· Claude Simon
With the exception of Marguerite Duras and Michel Butor (who resisted the classification), almost all the big name writers associated with the French Nouveau Roman [‘New Novel,’] literary movement was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy is noted for being critical of the early modernist literary period; instead they chose to acknowledge writers who had wrote in traditionally established narratives, such as realism. This would explain such omissions of the modernist school such as: James Joyce or Paul Valéry. It cannot be considered fair to blame the Swedish Academy for omitting such modernist writers as: Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, or Marcel Proust; due to their unfortunate premature deaths. Regardless, the Swedish Academy has discussed in introspective pieces of their own evolution of the Nobel Prize for Literature; that the academy had an otherwise complicated relationship with literary modernism.
The nouveau roman could be considered a mere extension of the modernist literary method, before moving further into postmodern realms. The nouveau roman is best described as a French literary trend, gaining traction off of the coattails of the modernist movement. The movement itself sought to depersonalize the novelist format. It considered other writers of previous generations old fashioned in their continual fixation on plot, narrative, character, and action. . They proposed instead to utilize the novel to depict with unadulterated accountancy and accuracy the reality in its truest form; not as it had been imagined. Their formal experimentation was appreciated by the literary circles and curious readers; but it never found success with the general reading public.
Of those listed who had affiliations or ties with the nouveau roman movement, Claude Simon was the only one to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1985. Claude Simon rejected the affiliation with the movement. Instead he perpetrated himself as a late modernist. Though, Simon’s work was noted for extensive experimentation with fragmentation of time, stream-of-consciousness, free indirect speech, and interior monologues. Major influences on Claude Simons work are Marcel Proust and William Faulker, and on occasion Simon had provided allusions to their work in symbolic gestures, such as a sniper hiding in a Hawthorne bush; reminiscent to the same bush where Gilberte and the narrator meet in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” What separates Claude Simon apart from other practitioners of the nouveau roman movement is his retains a strong sense of character and narrative in his work, regardless of its fluidity. Despite receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Claude Simon remains an obscure and unknown writer. His heavy handed literary experimentation also alienates him from readers, and he would not be described as the most pleasant writer either.
Nathalie Sarraute in this sense would best be described as the literary benefactor of Virginia Woolf. Much like Woolf, Nathalie Sarraute was less interested in the traditional notion of character. In fact, Nathalie Sarraute openly celebrated and proclaimed the ‘death of the literary character.’ In a fashion similar to Virginia Woolf and her use of stream-of-consciousness narrations to depict the nebulous and multitudinous of the human experience through psychological experiences and emotional responses; Nathalie Sarraute sought to capture and codify the phenomenological and psychological phenomena of the individual, and in doing so presents a shifting, fragmented, and incoherent depiction of life experienced and lived. It is these sudden and immediate changes in perspective, emotional resonances, psychological experiences, where Nathalie Sarraute is considered and defined as a difficult writer.
Along with Nathalie Sarraute the only other women nominated for the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature were:
· Elisaveta Bagriana – Bulgaria
· Simone de Beauvoir – France
· Anna Seghers – German [then, East Germany (GDR)]
· Marie Under – Estonia
It is still apparent even at the end of the sixties; the Swedish Academy was still progressing and evolving in their deliberations and decisions of the Nobel Prize for Literature. These developments have been taking place throughout the decade, and were beginning to take greater prominence in 1966, and in 1968 further developments were reached in the Swedish Academy having an open and democratic forum when they deliberated on Nobel Laureates. Anders Österling still holds great influence within the Swedish Academy, but his rule is now challenged on equal grounds by the Permanent Secretary Karl Ragnar Gierow, who in turn encouraged high spirited debate, challenges and discussions within the academy. The decision to award Samuel Beckett the Nobel Prize may have had some internal controversies between the two competing factions, led by Anders Österling and Karl Ragnar Gierow; Samuel Beckett could not have been a more appropriate choice for the award. Despite concerns about Beckett’s ideals—or the lack thereof—he has remained a relevant writer well into the Twenty-First Century, and there will be severe doubts this will change anytime soon. As one of the most radical and revolutionary playwrights of the Twentieth Century, Beckett’s influence still reaches through time, and indirectly impacts contemporary theatre. Samuel Beckett’s award is one of the strongest awards the Swedish Academy made, in comparison to the otherwise obscure writers they dredge up elsewhere.
Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
And As Always
Stay Well Read
For Further Reading
Svenska Dagbladet: "Resultatet av bråket: Akademien fick all mak,"
The Guardian: "'Ghost poetry': fight over Samuel Beckett's Nobel win revealed in archives,"
Irish Times: "Revealed: The fight to stop Samuel Beckett winning the Nobel prize,"
The Guardian: "Samuel Beckett rejected as unsuitable for the Nobel prize in 1968,"