Nobel Prize for Literature – Hmmm


After getting so enthusaistic about this year’s Man Booker, I’ve got to be honest, I find the Nobel Prize for Literature much harder to get into.  Maybe because it’s supposed to be international, maybe because I’m just too parochial, of all the big literary prizes out there this is probably the one that least resonates with me.

I’m saying this in justification because two of the last writers to go on my Russian Reading list were the two Nobel Laureates.  They are also the two whose work was hardest to get hold of in English translations, in fact, I’m not sure if there are any up to date translations of Sholokhov and my only book by Bunin was published in 1922 by Hogarth Press (translators include D H Lawrence and Leonard Woolf).  This suggests it’s not just me who’s neglectful of this prize.

In order to truly highlight my ignorance I’ve got hold of a list of Literature Nobel Laureates.

1901 Rene F. A. Sully Prudhomme France
1902 Theodore Mommsen Germany
1903 Bjornsterne Bjornson Norway
1904 Frederic Mistral
Jose Echegaray
1905 Henryk Sienkiewicz Poland
1906 Giosue Carducci Italy
1907 Rudyard Kipling Great Britain
1908 Rudolf C. Eucken Germany
1909 Selma Lagerlöf Sweden
1910 Paul J. L. Heyse Germany
1911 Maurice Maeterlinck Belgium
1912 Gerhart Hauptmann Germany
1913 Rabindranath Tagore India
1915 Romain Rolland France
1916 Verner von Heidenstam Sweden
1917 Karl A. Gjellerup
Henrik Pontoppidan
1919 Carl F. G. Spitteler Switzerland
1920 Knut Hamsun Norway
1921 Anatole France France
1922 Jacinto Benavente Spain
1923 William Butler Yeats Ireland
1924 Wladyslaw S. Reymont Poland
1925 George Bernard Shaw Ireland – Great Britain
1926 Grazia Deledda Italy
1927 Henri Bergson France
1928 Sigrid Undset Norway
1929 Thomas Mann Germany
1930 Sinclair Lewis United States
1931 Erik A. Karlfeldt Sweden
1932 John Galsworthy Great Britain
1933 Ivan A. Bunin Soviet Union
1934 Luigi Pirandello Italy
1936 Eugene O’Neill United States
1937 Roger Martin du Gard France
1938 Parl S. Buck United States
1939 Frans E. Sillanpää Finland
1944 Johannes V. Jensen Denmark
1945 Gabriela Mistral Chile
1946 Hermann Hesse Germany – Switzerland
1947 André Gide France
1948 T. S. Eliot Great Britain
1949 William Faulkner United States
1950 Bertrand Russell Great Britain
1951 Pär F. Lagerkvist Sweden
1952 Francois Mauriac France
1953 Sir Winston Churchill Great Britain
1954 Ernest Hemmingway United States
1955 Halldor K. Laxness Iceland
1956 Juan Ramón Jiménez Spain
1957 Albert Camus France
1958 Boris L. Pasternak (declined) Soviet Union
1959 Salvatore Quasimodo Italy
1960 Saint-John Perse France
1961 Ivo Andric Yugoslavia
1962 John Steinbeck United States
1963 Giorgos Seferis Greece
1964 Jean Paul Sartre (declined) France
1965 Mikhail Sholokhov Soviet Union
1966 Samuel Joseph Agnon
Nelly Sachs
1967 Miguel Angel Asturias Guatemala
1968 Yasunari Kawabata Japan
1969 Samuel Beckett Ireland
1970 Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn Soviet Union
1971 Pablo Neruda Chile
1972 Heinrich Böll Germany
1973 Patrick White Australia
1974 Eyvind Johnson
Harry Edmund Martinson
1975 Eugenio Montale Italy
1976 Saul Bellow United States
1977 Vicente Aleixandre Spain
1978 Isaac Bashevis Singer United States
1979 Odysseus Elytis Greek
1980 Czeslaw Milosz Poland – United States
1981 Elias Canetti Bulgaria – Great Britain
1982 Gabriel Garcia Marquez Columbia – Mexico
1983 William Golding Great Britain
1984 Jaroslav Siefert Czechoslovakia
1985 Claude Simon France
1986 Wole Soyinka Nigeria
1987 Joseph Brodsky Soviet Union – United States
1988 Naguib Mahfouz Egypt
1989 Camilo José Cela Spain
1990 Octavio Paz Mexico
1991 Nadine Gordimer South Africa
1992 Derek Walcott West Indies
1993 Toni Morrison United States
1994 Kenzaburo Oe Japan
1995 Seamus Heaney Ireland
1996 Wislawa Szymborska Poland
1997 Dario Fo Italy
1998 José Saramago Portugal
1999 Günter Grass Germany
2000 Gao Xingjian France
2001 Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul United Kingdom
2002 Imre Kertész Hungary
2003 J. M. Coetzee South Africa
2004 Elfriede Jelinek Austria
2005 Harold Pinter United Kingdom
2006 Orhan Pamuk Turkey
2007 Doris Lessing United Kingdom
2008 Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio France
2009 Herta Müller Germany
2010 Mario Vargas Llosa Peru
2011 Tomas Tranströmer Sweden
2012 Mo Yan China
2013 Alice Munro Canada
2014 Patrick Modiano France
2015 Svetlana Alexievich Belarus
2016 Bob Dylan UK

As the blues show, I’ve read 38 of the lists (though more for some than others; I’ve only read one poetry collection by Soyinka in contrast to loads of novels by Steinbeck).  Still, I feel ambiguous about this because part of me is disappointed with myself and part of me has trouble with a prize that thinks anyone who could write ‘Stalky and Co’ belongs on such a list (it’s Rudyard Kipling if you haven’t read this particular gung-ho imperial set of school stories).

I’m also aware that there are writers on the list who I do want to read, but have had trouble finding in translation.  Anatole France and Octavio Paz don’t exactly fill my local second book shops, though that doesn’t mean I’ve given up looking.

Anyway, by the end of this year, I’ll be able to put ticks next to two more Russian authors on the list (Bunin and Sholokhov).  I’m not planning on undertaking any kind of Nobel Literature Prize project, but I will be revisiting this list to see if I am working my way through it and also to try to understand how the criteria works.  After all, it’s hard to understand a list of world literature that has eight authors from Sweden but only one from China and three from the whole of Africa.  And where’s the late great Chinua Achebe?

This may sound like cheating, but writing this post has confirmed my initial scepticism; while I hate to be negative about any prize (because who doesn’t like prizes?) it’s hard to feel enthusiastic about this most famous of them.

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22 Responses to Nobel Prize for Literature – Hmmm

  1. BookerTalk says:

    Looking at this list I see many names from the early years that I have never heard of and yet they are meant to be the stars of the literary world, someone whose body of work is far above the norm. So is that a reflection on me as a reader or the prize that today these names are not visible?

    • I had the same reaction as you, but have decided it’s definitely a reflection on the prize! It certainly suggests that popular logevity is neither a cause nor a result of receiving the Nobel for Literature!

  2. bookarino says:

    I have to admit that I’m in the same boat as you when it comes to the Nobel Prize. Although it is the most renowned of the literary prizes, it’s not a very accessible one. This might be partly due to the “prestige” and highbrow nature of the prize, but also because the prize is rewarded to an author, and not to a specific book. Instead of selecting one excellent piece of literature (like the Man Booker Prize does), the prize highlights an author with often a large body of work – but where do you start? And instead of a long list and a short list, there can only be rumours and guesses as to who will win this year.

    The issue of available translations also makes reading all the winners a tricky project, because often the fame of the prize winner might last for that one single year before the next winner is elected. Being a Nobel Prize winner is often a good boost for translation rights, but if the fame is short-lived, the books translated within that one year might end up being the only prints. Hence it can be hard to track down a single volume of the only translation that exists. I’ve personally, however, found libraries to be a good source for books by Nobel winners, so you could try those if you’re interested.

    And as for the imbalance in representation of countries, it appears that because the prize essentially a Swedish invention, the Swedes have had a bit of an home advantage…

    • You’re so right. If getting the prize really resulted in more international readers and translations I’d be so happy. One of the reasons I love lit prizes is the publicity and recognition it brings writers – filtering down to readers. What frustrated me about the list was seeing that this hadn’t really been the case with so many writers named, at least, not in a way that impacted on me as a reader.
      As for the library having editions, due to funding cuts my local library has an incredibly small selection of books and limited opening hours. Unfortunately I don’t think I’m going to get my Nobel hit that way. Still, it’s great to hear I’m not the only person grappling with this. I suppose the next challenge would be to try and pick which of an author’s books should be considered the real winner within their lifetime of work (ie ‘Kim’ or ‘The Jungle Book’ rather than ‘Stalky & co’)!

      • Lucy says:

        If you’re in the UK you can order anything from the library that’s available in print in your county. I’m in the same boat as you that the local place is only open for about four hours a week and is full of Jack Reacher and celeb autobiographies, but they can get you stuff from their catalogues and archives for free, although it might take a couple of weeks. 🙂

      • Ooh, that is very good to know (and is not a service they publicise)! I’ll be looking into the wonderful possibilities this weekend 🙂

      • Lucy says:

        You might find the library catalogue is available to search and reserve via your local council’s website, I am a tad addicted to mine, and often find myself reserving books in the middle of the night. With Nobels I found they didn’t have a lot of the older ones, but mine (surprisingly, as we are a very sparsely populated rural county) had Mikhail Sholokhov, Imre Kertész, Patrick White, Czeslaw Milosz, John Galsworthy, and quite a few others.

      • What a wonderful suggestion. I’d somewhat given up on my library after repeated failure to get hold of ‘The Girl on the Train’ and a pigheaded refusal to pay to reserve it. All is forgiven now though – they have a copy of the 2012 Alma Classics ‘The Village’ by Bunin!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    TBH I’ve never looked that closely at the prize and the list, although I have read a number of authors from it. As for translations – there’s quite a lot of Bunin available in the UK, including two from Alma Classics, and several of the other authors you mention have books in English I know of. Are you based in the UK?

    • I am in the UK and thank you for the heads up about Bunin! I already love Alma for their superb ‘Oblomov’ (they’ve a new ‘The Same Old Story’, also trans, Stephen Pearl, coming out next month). Things might not be as bleak as I felt when researching and writing the post – I’d just finished a very dated Bunin novel (lots of ‘athwart’s and ”tis’s) and was at quite a low ebb…

  4. FictionFan says:

    You’re doing much better than me, that’s for sure! I think the Nobel is as much a political prize as a literary one – it often seems the winner is given the award for being against a regime the committee disapproves of – or in the case of Churchill et al seen as deserving of a reward for services to humanity. Worthy, but doesn’t always equate to the best literature. In my humble opinion, of course… 😉

  5. roughghosts says:

    Only one from my home country Canada too.

  6. You? Parochial?? I think not! Hmm………..interesting that Doris Lessing (well deserved, I think) is ‘UK’ – her upbringing in was was Rhodesia/Zimbabwe is so very much part of her writing

  7. avivadautch says:

    While i agree with you on the fiction writers, I think that it’s a different story for the poets that won. I know I’m a poetry geek, but I found that while I knew of maybe 50% of the prose and playwrights, not only were all the poets familiar names to me but I’d read at least one collection by each of them. With e.g. Montale, Szymborska and Transtromer, winning the Nobel gave them a wider audience and certainly encouraged more translation of their work. Szymborska, a rather quiet, reclusive figure, wasn’t *that* well known in Poland before the Nobel, but became a voice of her nation.

    I agree with Lady Fancifull about the nationalities being dodgy. As well as Lessing and Camus, I’d query Herta Muller. A lot of her work is about what it was like to live under Ceaucescu (sp?) and I’m pretty sure she’s actually from Romania tho, like Celan and other Romanian / Transylvanian writers, german speaking.

    One last thing – maybe some of the names from the earlier years aren’t familiar to us because they’re not actually literary? Aren’t both Henri Bergson & Bertrand Russell philosophers? I didn’t realise that writing philosophy qualified you for a ‘literature’ prize 😉

    • Quite – I’m not sure that being the British Prime Minister during WW2 should do so either!
      The point about poetry is important and had been lost on me. Maybe it’s another reason why I have trouble with the prize, if it includes philosophy, memoire, drama, poetry and novels it has to be one of the broadest categories for any prize ever. It’s great to hear that it really did expand the readership of the poets named, though I suspect that may have more to do with your own incredible poetry collection and reading than a general reflection of the reading public 😉

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