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PATH TO THE PRIZE : Ask not what your country can do for you, but how you can win a Nobel for your country

October 02, 1994|PETER JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You say I am a riddle--it may be

For all of us are riddles unexplained

Begun in pain, in deeper torture ended

This breathing clay, what business has it here?

Some petty wants to chain us to the earth,

Some lofty thoughts to lift us to the spheres

And cheat us with that semblance of a soul

To dream of immortality, til Time

O'er empty visions draws the closing veil

And a new life sets in--the life of worms

Those hungry plunderers of the human breast . . .\f7

--Alfred Nobel

*

When the Swedish dynamite inventor (and sometime poet) Alfred Nobel died in 1896 at age 63, he left an explosive legacy. His estate--worth an estimated $9 million at the time and scattered across eight countries--was to be invested in blue-ribbon securities. The annual income was to be divided in five equal parts and used to bestow five annual awards "as prizes to those who, during the course of each year, have been of the greatest service to mankind."

Nobel, who never married and had no immediate family, apparently believed that large fortunes should not be inherited. Nobel's nieces and nephews--save one, Emanuel--vigorously fought the terms of the will for three years, at one point even engaging the King of Sweden to argue with Emanuel that his uncle had "been misled by peace fanatics." Nobel's fellow Swedes were none too happy when the details of his bequest became public. Many inhabitants of the impoverished and largely agricultural country were unhappy with the idea that such a vast fortune might benefit foreigners.

Nobel instructed that three of the awards were to recognize discoveries in chemistry, physics and medicine, three areas in which he had worked or dabbled. The Peace Prize was to be given to the person who had done the most "for fraternity among nations, for abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." Nobel delegated this task to the Norwegian parliament to honor the union of Sweden and Norway. Although the two countries parted in 1905, Norway still presents the prize. An annual prize for economics, established and financed by the Bank of Sweden, was established in Nobel's name in 1968.

The final award was to go to the person who had produced the most outstanding literary work of an "ideal tendency." In addition, Nobel wrote: "It is my express wish that, when the prizes are awarded, there shall be no kind of racial discrimination, wherefore the most worthy person shall receive the prize, whether he is a Scandinavian or not."

After five years of haggling over Nobel's will and estate, the executors finally created the Nobel Foundation to oversee the institutes that administer the prizes, and to enforce the prize rules. The Swedish Academy of Letters--an association of writers and academics established by King Gustav III in 1786 to promote Swedish language and literature--was charged with choosing the annual winners of one of the world's richest literary awards. Members of the Academy are Swedish writers and literary scholars and critics who are elected for life by the Academy itself.

That Special Something

Each generation of the Academy has redefined its sense of what Nobel meant by "ideal tendency." The prizes first reflected a conservative version of "ideal tendency": a firm belief in God's order on Earth based on the family. Later, it was decided (by interpreting a letter from a close friend of the inventor) that Nobel meant a critical stance toward religion, the monarchy, marriage and the social order as a whole. In the 1920s and '30s, newly elected Academy members took "ideal tendency" to mean profound human sympathy and broadly humanitarian authorship.

In the 1970s there was renewed emphasis on Nobel's wish to promote authors who were still active and the Academy began to emphasize what it called neglected pioneers, masters, genres, languages and cultures. Members of the Academy also thought the prize should bring attention to writers not necessarily known to a worldwide audience. One Academy member said the prize should bring attention to writers on "efforts which are not gaining the respect they deserve."

Making the Short List

No writer can apply for a Nobel Prize. Indeed, self-nomination can rule one out for life. Rather, according to the Academy statutes: "The right to nominate candidates for the prize shall be enjoyed by members of the Swedish Academy and of other academies, institutions, and societies, who are similar to it in constitution and purpose; by professors of literature, Nobel prize winners of literature, and presidents of those societies of authors that are representative of the literary production of their respective countries."

A subgroup of the Academy--the Nobel Committee--reviews the nominations it receives from former laureates, academics and various institutions worldwide that have an interest in literature. From this list, the committee forms a secret "short list" of writers whose works are to be scrutinized and debated by the entire Academy.

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