The Birdcage Archives

Thursday 4 January 2024

The Nobel Prize in Literature Nominations 1973

Hello Gentle Reader,

In 1973 the Nobel Prize in Literature moved beyond its pre-established borders and introduced a new continent into its purview, when it was announced that the Australian writer Patrick White was the years Nobel Laureate in Literature with the citation:

“For an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature.”

There is a somewhat tongue and cheek tone to the citation concerning the part: “[…] which has introduced a new continent into literature,”— as before receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, Patrick White was not popular among Australian readers and citizens. White’s writing was rooted in established staunch European and English literary traditions, and did not break any new ground either literary or geographically, but was a consummate novelist in his own right. Interestingly enough, Patrick White’s debut novel “Happy Valley,” was never re-issued in his lifetime, having only be reprinted in 2012, in commemorating White’s centennial birthday. “Happy Valley,” was written while White was a jackaroo, a job that his parents thought would be suitable to finally stamp out his sensitives, proclivities, and artistic ambitious for a career as a writer. In short it failed. White’s initial years as a stockman and agricultural worker of the land, proved to be dismal and unfulfilling, all the while establishing that he had neither the grit nor aptitude for the work. “Happy Valley,” in turn provides the debut of Patrick White’s European sensibilities that have been thrusted into a harsh and wild landscape that is both unforgiving and unwelcoming. Written in fragrant modernist style and producing a polyphonic stream-of-consciousness narrative stream. White made it very clear he was not a writer of egalitarian ideals, but relished in high culture with no interest in engaging in philistine merriment that was consumed and disseminated around him. “Happy Valley,” describes a remote community in the South East corner of Australia, desolate and beautiful it recounts the hardscape life of the inhabitants of the land, where everyone has a story regarding loss and loneliness and longing for escape, all the while being incapable of completely wrenching themselves from it into emancipation and liberty. Instead through distinct voices and vivid psychological cadence, Patrick White displays the characters forsake escape and resign themselves to sorrowful acceptance of their otherwise ordinary lives. “Happy Valley,” introduces the main concerns of Patrick White’s literary preoccupation with the extraordinary in the ordinary, depicted in intense psychological character studies, whereby the characters are imbued with a sense of intuitive and spiritual understanding of their otherwise pedestrian lives, which inevitably grants them further insight into their condition, by which language fails to adequately express their complexities in an external environment and so they are classified as deranged, eccentric, and delusional and cast out further and retreat increasingly inward. In this, Patrick White is a consummate psychological writer, exploring and spelunking ever further into the depths of consciousness and the interior realms of his characters.

In his subsequent novels: “The Aunt’s Story,” The Tree of Man,” “Voss,” “The Vivisector,” and “The Eye of the Storm,” Patrick White became the Australian explorer of the existential, but was still regarded in his homeland as being one with a European soul and had forsaken the ruff and tumble straightforward style of postcolonial Australia, for the complex and difficult modernism as the prevailing literary fashion of the time. In short, White’s reception in Australia would always be marked with muted response and remains so. Despite time abroad, returning to Australia and marveling at its intense geography and landscape instilled within White a sense of humility. “The Tree of man,” is considered Patrick White’s defining novel and his breakout success. “The Tree of Man,” places a microscope and focuses on the lives of the Parker family and their homestead within the Australian outback. The ordinariness of the everyday is transfigured within heightened poetic details and exploration of the psychological dimensions, proving that Patrick White had the European soul which alienated him so from the Australian literary, all the while recounting and celebrating the majestic beauty of the Australian landscape. Ordinary existence is never treated as mundane, it is heightened and exalted within a literary style that is complex and meandering to mimic the human experience of thought and relation to time. “The Tree of Man,” affirmed Patrick White as the premiere Australian modernist writer, one whose appreciation of Greek mythology as allegory, Judaeo-Christian mysticism, Jungian psychological theories, and a penchant for Joycean complexities and Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness ensure he was appreciated as a serious writer of high literary calibre.

In his award ceremony speech, Artur Lundkvist sought to balance out the Swedish Academy’s citation by both celebrating the introduction of the Australian-Oceanic continent into the literary pantheon by praising Patrick White’s exploration, display, and praise of the Australian landscape, by comparing him to great Australian pictorial artists of the time: Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale; but in turn focused on White’s literary achievements, which are less concerned with the preoccupations of Australian perspective, and instead are fixated experiences, perceptions, problems, and living situations which are intensely individualized, bypassing the provincial or national concerns, and moving into the universal and existential questioning of the human condition. In short, Artur Lundkvist praises the contrary insoluble qualities of Patrick White’s literary work, the harmonizing of the epic and poetic within the otherwise ordinary (albeit alienated/outsider) life.

As a Nobel Laureate, Patrick White’s laureateship was less political than his predecessors, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1970) and Pablo Neruda (1971). This ultimately took the edge off of the prize to evade another heated debate regarding literary merit vs political posturing and pandering. The reception of Patrick White’s laureateship was equally ceremoniously without issue, and the debate within the Swedish Academy was civil. Of course, this was not the first time Patrick White had been discussed or nominated. In the year prior he was on the shortlist with winner Henrich Böll, and future laureates Eugenio Montale (1975) Günter Grass (1999). While in 1971, Patrick White was included on the shortlist along with W.H Aude, André Malraux, and Eugenio Montale.

A total of 101 writer were nominated for the award in 1973. The shortlist for 1973 was as follows:

Patrick White (Laureate for 1973)
Saul Bellow (would win 1976)
Anthony Burgess
William Golding (would win 1983)
Eugenio Montale (would win 1975)
Yiannis Ritsos

After the votes had been tallied the Swedish Academy decided on a majority that Patrick White would be the suitable laurate for the year. Saul Below with five votes was a close second, and the then Chairman of the Nobel Committee, Karl Ragnar Gierow, threw his preferable support behind Saul Bellow and Yiannis Ritsos, who got four votes. Anthony Burgess, William Golding, and Eugenio Montale each received three votes. Of these three, Eugenio Montale would go on win the award in 1975 and can be considered the last great Italian poet of the 20th century to receive the honour. While, William Golding, the small British phenomenon of no importance (to quote, Artur Lundkvist) would go on to receive the award in 1983, and is remembered for his dreary and drab parabolic novel “The Lord of the Flies.”

It is interesting to see the Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos being discussed. No doubt his name will crop up again in the subsequent years and a debate come to head between himself and Odysseus Elytis, both with extremely different poetry differences. Despite hating being referenced as a ‘political poet,’ Yiannis Ritsos poetry was renowned for cutting its teeth in the political arena and discourse, as Ritsos was politically aligned to the left and was a documented Communist Party member. Unsurprisingly, Ritsos found himself routinely persecuted and imprisoned for his political allegiances and involvement. In 1975 Yiannis Ritsos received the Lenin Peace Prize, which the poet famously remarked meant more to him then the Nobel Prize. Over the 1970’s it is likely that Yiannis Ritsos will continue to be discussed as a potential laureate and maybe viewed as an oppositional figure to sunlight infused surrealism of his countrymen Odysseus Elytis.

Other notable nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973 included:

Elie Wiesel (32 nominations)
W.H. Auden (12 nominations)
André Malraux (8 nominations)
André Chamson (5 nominations)
Juline Green (5 nominations)
Gyula Illyés (5 nominations)
Vladimir Nabokov (5 nominations)

It has become apparent by this time, that the Swedish Academy had confirmed their resignation to disavow W.H. Auden from being considered any further due to his advancing age. Auden, in turn died September 29, 1973 at 66 years old, which by todays standards would still have put him in viable contention. André Malraux also found himself now firmly seated on the back bench of the Swedish Academy. Interesting that Elie Wiesel was nominated with such vigor, and while it does not surprise me that he was nominated, considering his monumental and poignant work “Night.” Wiesel would go on receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, not only for his literary production but for his continued humanitarian work. In the case of Vladimir Nabokov, the Swedish Academy had made their positions on his work very clear, as they found the work “Lolita,” which they found as immoral and perverse, which was the exact opposite of Vladimir Nabokov’s intentions when writing the novel.

Nominations for the 1973 Nobel Prize in literature included many future Nobel Laureates:

Eyvind Johnson (1974)
Harry Martinson (1974)
Vicente Alexiandre (1977)
Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978)
Odysseus Elytis (1979)
Elias Canetti (1981)
Claude Simon (1985)
Camilo Jose Cela (1989)
Nadine Gordimer (1991)
V.S. Naipaul (2001)
Doris Lessing (2007)

The following list of writers were first nominated in 1973, of them, only two nominated writers would receive the award, the Spanish poet Vicente Aleixandre in 1977, and the Yiddish literary master Isaac Bashevis Singer.  

Conrad Aiken (died 1973, making him ineligible)
Vicente Aleixandre (1977)
Antonio Aniante
Miodrag Bulatovic
Albert Cohen
Adolfo Costa du Rels
Indira Devi Dhanrajgir
Eugen Jebeleanu
Yasar Kemal
Zenta Maurina
Henry Miller
John Crow Ransom
Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978)
Pratapnarayan Tandon
Paul Voivenel
Martin Wickramasinghe
Chiang Yee
Xu You

The Swedish Academy’s deliberations during the 1973 prize also showcased a continued conversation regarding the nominations of both Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, two Swedish writers and members of the Swedish Academy. Precedence had already been set that the Swedish Academy could award one of its own members with the prize, as in the case of the moralist Pär Lagerkvist who received the award in 1951 with minimal controversy. Lagerkvist in turn was a continued nominator and supporter of both Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson. Artur Lundkvist previously expressed concerns in the 1972 deliberations of the prize:

“It is not only highly respectable but almost inevitable that Mr. Lagerkvist, as a former Swedish Nobel laureate within the Academy, in this way insists on yet another Nobel Prize for an academy colleague. But in its ultimate consequence it involves the prospect of recurring rewards to academy members, and that is something that, in my view, should be avoided. [. . .] My opinion is that one should think very carefully before awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to a Swede at all, and that in the current situation there is a special reason why this does not happen.”

In 1973, however, the pressure to consider a Swedish writer as eligible for the Nobel Prize in Literature had mounted. Then Chairman of the Nobel Committee and Permanent Secretary Karl Ragnar Gierow, decided to discuss the topic in length, bypassing the Nobel Committee’s more reserved silence on the matter as a polite mere non-issue. In 1973, Gierow observed that there were only three Swedish writers whose work was assessed to meeting the standard of the Nobel Prize in Literature at the time: Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson and Vilhelm Moberg, writing:

“Also, on this year's list of proposals, they assert themselves well. Harry Martinson is not behind Ritsos in lyrical richness and is more original. Eyvind Johnson and Vilhelm Moberg measure themselves in epic power with the storytellers, who this year are in the foreground, this said in full awareness that no one is strictly measuring themselves against anyone else: there is no reliable and manageable measuring stick.”

Of course, Karl Ragnar Gierow understands the risks, noting that it could damage the reputation of the Nobel Prize and the Swedish Academy itself. Yet, the question was not a discussion of pure literary merit, but a conversation of optics and suitability. Artur Lundkvist had previously argued against the irreconcilable unsuitability of awarding members of the Swedish Academy, and while Karl Ragnar Gierow highlights the defining concerns presented by Lundkvist, he eloquently disregards them, as suitability is not a defining feature of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but literary merit, at which trumps all concerns over nationality, religion, political allegiance, race or another exterior concern. Karl Ragnar Gierow further argued against the exclusion of association of the academy or direct membership, noting that in previous years past with the science prizes, laureates from their respective academy and awarding institutions had also been inducted into laureateship, to exempt or exclude members of the Swedish Academy was viewed as unreasonable consideration on the grounds of suitability. Karl Ragnar Gierow continued with almost a sardonic tone that if the Swedish Academy (who included both a blend of academics and writers) is to punish and bar its own members from being considered on their literary ground, it should avoid appointing remarkable literary talent to its ranks, in order to spare them the voidance and exclusion of never being considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature, regardless of their literary achievements.

One can admire Karl Ragnar Gierow’s perceived level-headedness as an administrator with the Swedish Academy, both as its Chairman of the Nobel Committee and as the Permanent Secretary. I think credit should be given to Gierow for decisively steering the Nobel Prize in Literature to being a literary award, moving away from literal interpretations of Alfred Nobel’s will regarding the ambiguity of “an ideal direction,” and instead push the Swedish Academy to bypass political and ideological fracturing and review candidates on their basis of their substantial literary production, and reviewed as individuals of merit, not through the exterior lens of personal quality, be it nationality, gender, race, religious belief or political association. To further this point, Karl Ragnar Gierow acknowledged that previous laureates in the awards history would not be considered great writers, with many being mediocre decisions in hindsight and are doomed to be forgotten. Despite Karl Ragnar Gierow’s eloquent rationale and defense of reviewing nominations on an individual candidate and merit base, the fallout of the shared award in 1974 would have lasting repercussions and impact on the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Prize in Literature. 1973 provides a glimpse into the deliberations that would lead into the following year, which will surely be a rousing debate and discussions, finally providing the clarity regarding the academy’s decision to grossly overvalue their position as arbitrators of literary taste, while favouring their own members. 

Thank you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
M. Mary

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