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Plot Thickens in Nobel Author Saga

Days before the literary prize is awarded, a Swedish Academy member quits in disgust over the 2004 laureate.

October 12, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — A loud crack of dissent Tuesday rattled the secretive circle that hands out Nobel Prizes.

Days before this year's literature prize announcement, a member of the Swedish Academy, which gives the award, resigned in disgust over the unexpected choice of last year's winner, Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek. The high-brow scuffle in the august literary chambers of Stockholm was provoked by the searing pen of a disgruntled 82-year-old academy member.

Knut Ahnlund sent a missive to the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. He characterized Jelinek's work as "whining, unenjoyable public pornography" and said her prize "has not only been an irreparable damage to all progressive forces, it has also confused the general view of literature as an art."

He added: "After this, I cannot even formally remain in the Swedish Academy.... I consider myself an outsider."

Ahnlund did not say why he waited so long to voice his disdain. Horace Engdahl, the academy's permanent secretary, told the Swedish media that Ahnlund had not attended academy meetings for nearly a decade and was not involved in Jelinek's selection. He suggested that Ahnlund timed his displeasure to spoil Thursday's naming of the next winner.

"This very possibly has something to do with the fact that this week the academy will announce this year's winner," Engdahl said. "He knows nothing about the discussion that led to the choice of Elfriede Jelinek, so what he says in this article of his is empty speculation."

The resignation came during heightened anticipation of this year's recipient. The academy was expected to name a winner last Thursday but delayed the announcement, offering no reason. It will be the first time in years that the recipient of the literature prize will be named after the first week of October, although the academy's rules allow it to alter the timing.

Some European literati have suggested that members are split ideologically or politically over the choice for the prize, which carries a $1.3-million award. The academy has denied such reports.

Public resignations from the 18-member academy are rare. When they occur, however, they offer a glimpse into a collection of intellectuals viewed variously as eccentric, curmudgeonly, visionary, clueless, politically motivated and, most often, unpredictable.

In 1989, members Kerstin Ekman and Lars Gyllensten quit after accusing the academy of not supporting Salman Rushdie against death threats issued by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini because of Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses."

Jelinek's prize revealed the academy's occasional preference for unconventional style and work that may not be widely translated. Some also think the tint of leftist politics, a charge the academy often faces but denies, colored her selection. Jelinek's most recent works were sharply critical of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

The academy cited Jelinek, whose semiautobiographical 1983 novel, "The Piano Teacher," was made into an award-winning film, "for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's cliches and their subjugating power."

In his letter to the newspaper Tuesday, Ahnlund characterized Jelinek's writing as "a mass of text shoveled together without artistic structure."

Attempting to guess the academy's choices has become an exasperating parlor game for writers and critics. The favorite of oddsmakers this year is the Syrian poet Adonis. Other contenders include poets Thomas Transtromer of Sweden and Ko Un of South Korea and American authors Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates.

Another possibility is Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, whose books include "Snow" and "My Name Is Red." Pamuk would present the academy with another round of perplexing politics. Turkey recently started talks to join the European Union after promising to improve its human rights record. Meanwhile, Pamuk is awaiting trial for saying in an interview that Turkey committed genocide against Armenians and Kurds in the early 20th century.

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High recognition

The procedures for choosing a Nobel literature laureate:

Nomination: In September, the Swedish Academy sends letters to individuals and organizations that are qualified to nominate candidates. The nominations reach the academy by February. About 200 names are submitted yearly.

Selection: The Nobel committee examines the nominees and in April presents the academy with about 20 candidates. The academy reduces the list to about five finalists, then names the winner in October.

Source: Nobel Foundation

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