|Volume 6 | Issue 11 | November 2012 ||
Nobel Lore and Laureatess
MEGASTHENES draws on interesting Nobel trivia from the inception of the prestigious prize.
It was sometime in the year 1989 or early in 1990. A former British Prime Minister, and at that time a life peer, addressed an unusual letter to the then President of Bangladesh. The letter recounted briefly the very laudable work being done by Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, as President of Save the Children Fund. The Princess had travelled extensively in Asia, Africa and Latin America to promote the cause of needy and helpless children. There was a request at the end of the letter. Would the President consider nominating Princess Anne for the Nobel Peace Prize; this would be a fitting recognition of her role and activities in a most worthy cause. Nominations for the Peace award can be submitted by, among others, members of national assemblies, of governments, of international courts, and by former Peace laureates. The President in his reply wholeheartedly appreciated the Princess' role and efforts in the cause of disadvantaged children. There was no commitment, however, with regard to the Nobel Prize nomination.
In August of 1990, President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia let it be known that he had nominated Princess Anne for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as President of Save the Children Fund. There have been suggestions that a few other friendly African nations also did the same. President Kaunda and the others may have acted of their own volition. It is not unlikely though that the matter was broached to them by individuals of influence.
For a hundred years and more, the Nobel Prize has been the ultimate and most coveted accolade and recognition. Men and women of high talent and achievement have been so honoured; a few choices have surprised, and there have also been some startling omissions. The awards are decided by four organisations. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences votes for the prizes in Physics, Chemistry, and also for the Nobel Memorial prize in Economic Sciences that was established in 1968. The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, the leading medical foundation of Sweden, decides the prize in Medicine. A Nobel Committee of five distinguished Norwegians, appointed by the country's parliament, votes for the winner of the Peace prize, while the Swedish Academy determines the Literature prize. Archival material pertaining to an award is open to researchers after an embargo of 50 years. In recent decades inside information -- “based on firsthand private interviews with Nobel Prize judges and officials…and with Nobel Prize winners” of various countries -- has also emerged, which sheds light on the human and less than solemn aspects of Nobel institutions and mechanisms.
In the categories of Literature and also Peace, unlike in those of the Sciences, a layman can have an informed opinion about winners and losers. Over a hundred pre-eminent literary personalities have been awarded the prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy has also voted down some very familiar names, a few of them repeatedly. Among those who lost are: Tolstoy, Chekov, Ibsen, Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Gorky, Strindberg, Bertolt Brecht, Zola, Proust, James Joyce, Paul Valery, Theodore Dreiser, Maugham and HG Wells.
Rabindranath Tagore became the first non-European to win a Nobel when he was awarded the Literature prize in 1913. He won almost fortuitously. The judges had more or less decided to give the prize to French literary historian Emile Faguet, when one of the judges, an Orientalist and himself a poet, Verner von Heidenstam happened to read the Gitanjali in translation. This was the only collection of Tagore's poetry in English. Heidenstam was enthralled; he could not “recall having seen for decades anything comparable in lyric poetry”, and urged the other judges to read the book also. There was a problem though, none of the other judges knew English. A Swedish professor, who knew Bangla, was entrusted with the responsibility of translating it into Swedish, and he in turn was so enthused that he suggested the judges should learn Bangla to savour Tagore in the original language. The judges did try to learn, but the task was enormous. The problem was resolved once the professor's translation was completed; Tagore emerged an easy winner. His Nobel citation stated that he was awarded the prize for his “profoundly sensitive and beautiful verse”. Unlike the Pulitzer or Booker, the Nobel Prize for literature is generally given not for a single work, but, as TS Eliot put it, “for the entire corpus”. Tagore was considered and chosen on the basis of a single work, Gitanjali, which represents only a fraction of his literary output and genius. There are other winners whose citations highlight a particular work. In 1929, Thomas Mann was awarded “principally for his great novel, Buddenbrooks”, and Hemingway got his prize in 1954 “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea”. If the three Bandhopadhays -- Manik, Bibhutibhusan and Tarashankar -- had been translated into English, one wonders whether one or more of them might not been a credible contender for the Nobel. Incidentally, Von Heidenstam himself would win the Nobel three years after Tagore.
The first literature award was given in 1901 to Sully Prudhomme of France. Emile Zola was voted down because he was deemed “too daring”. Tolstoy likewise was passed over for non-literary reasons; one of the judges. Dr Carl David af Wirsen, staunchly opposed Tolstoy because of his eccentric religious beliefs and advocacy of anarchism. Tolstoy would be ignored in every vote until his death in 1910. Today Prudhomme's works, unlike those of Tolstoy and Zola, have largely become “obscure period pieces”.
For the 1903 award, B Bjornson of Norway was preferred over Ibsen. Nobel had liked Bjornson's works, and Ibsen's writings were deemed “too realistic” and deficient in idealism. Bjornson incidentally was an ardent proponent of Norwegian separatism. The 1909 prize went to Swedish writer Selma Lagerlof. The country's leading dramatist, August Strindberg was not considered. Judge Sven Hedin, whom Strindberg had ridiculed, disliked him heartily, while some of the other judges disapproved of his drinking, his three divorces and belief in black magic. Romain Rolland of France won the award in 1915, as much for his “courageous pacifism” -- which conformed to Nobel's ideals -- as for his literature. Rolland was in Switzerland when World War I broke out. He denounced the war, and was promptly attacked in both Germany and France. The judges were sufficiently moved to select him over Perez Galdos of Spain, who had been favoured to win. Romain Rolland would later meet Gandhi, whom he admired, and write a book on him.
The 1920 literature prize evoked controversy at that time and more so later. Knut Hamsun of Norway was awarded the prize “for his monumental work, Growth of the Soil”. One of the judges, Per Hallstrom, in a dissent, noted that Hamsun had exerted an “anarchic influence”, and that his works were singularly devoid of the “idealistic tendency which the Nobel Prize is intended to encourage”. Hamsun celebrated too well on the night of the ceremony and, in a state of drunkenness, pulled the whiskers of a Nobel judge. In April, 1940, when Germany invaded Norway, he welcomed the Nazis. Hamsun supported Quisling and admired Hitler. After the war, he was arrested and confined to an old people's home; his property was confiscated. Three years ago, Hamsun's 150th birthday was celebrated in Norway, almost as a national jubilee; the Norwegian people were at long last prepared to forgive his dark side.
In 1930 the choice was largely between Americans Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. The judges were agreed that American writers could not continue to be ignored. Lewis was chosen for the award; his publisher, Alfred Harcourt, had lobbied vigorously for him. Ivan Bunin became the first Russian to be honoured three years later. He was an anti-communist expatriate living in Paris. Anders Osterling, Secretary of the Swedish Academy, explained privately that this was “to pay off our bad consciences on Chekov and Tolstoy”.
Luigi Pirandello won the prize in 1934. The contest was between him and fellow Italian Benedetto Croce. Croce, thought to be the more deserving candidate, was anti-fascist, while Pirandello was “politically harmless”, and thus acceptable to Mussolini. The Italian Ambassador to Sweden was obliged “to engage in backstairs intrigue to keep the prize from going to Benedetto Croce”. Pearl Buck was the winner in 1938. Senior judge, Sven Hedin, an old China hand who liked the Chinese background in her books, persuaded other judges who had some reservations. Pearl Buck herself felt that Theodore Dreiser was more deserving of the honour. Frans Sillanpaa of Finland was the surprise choice in 1939. Russia had invaded Finland, and a senior judge, Selma Lagerlof, strongly felt that a symbolic stand against this aggression was called for. Andre Gide had been a contender for two decades. The judges respected his work, but his homosexuality weighed against him. The conservative majority eventually had a change of heart and chose him in 1947. In 1962 the winner was John Steinbeck. The London Times commented tartly that “Steinbeck's disarming doubts about his own merit are, perhaps, shared by many…It is becoming difficult to take seriously the standards of judgment of an international literary prize which overlooks… the claims of such writers as Valery, Malraux or Brecht, preferring to honour the accomplishments … of Pearl Buck and Quasimodo”. Italian writer Quasimodo had won in 1959.
Mikhail Sholokov was the first pro-Soviet communist writer to be awarded the literature prize. He won in 1965, “for the artistic power and integrity with which, in his epic of the Don, he has given expression to a historic phase in the life of the Russian people”. For the 1974 award, the judges chose Swedish writers Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson over Graham Greene, Nabokov and Saul Bellow. Bellow would win the prize two years later. Johnson and Martinson were Nobel judges themselves. A professor of Uppsala University commented in a newspaper article that the choice reflected “a lack of judgment by the Academy”…and could “only too easily be interpreted as corruption through camaraderie”.
In the three categories of science, some well-known names have been overlooked for the prize. A list of those who could have won, but did not, would include Thomas Edison for Physics, Mendeleev of Russia, who formulated the Periodic Law of the elements, for Chemistry, and, for Medicine, Sabin and Salk, both of the US, who made significant contributions to the development of an oral vaccine against polio. Joseph Lister of Britain, pioneer of antiseptic surgery, would also have been a credible candidate for the Medicine prize.
The Physics laureate for 1921, Albert Einstein, would figure in any list of the most influential scientists in history. He would probably have won the prize some years earlier but for the staunch opposition of former Physics laureate Philipp Von Lenard. Von Lenard, a German, had won the prize in 1905; he was a Nazi and an anti-Semite. He persuaded the Swedish Academy of Science that Einstein's Theory of Relativity was not a discovery and of no benefit to mankind. Einstein's citation made no mention of the Theory of Relativity. He was honoured for “his services to Theoretical Physics and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”.
Bertha von Suttner of Austria won the Peace prize in 1905. She was a writer, pacifist and peace activist, and had worked briefly as Alfred Nobel's secretary. She was the second woman to win a Nobel. There have been suggestions that members of the Nobel family lobbied the Norwegian judges on her behalf. Von Suttner, it is believed, had an influential role in Nobel's decision to include peace in the categories of award.
President Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Peace prize in 1906; he was the first American to win a Nobel. The US President had mediated the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese war. There may have been another underlying reason; Norway was newly independent and needed American support. In domestic policies, Roosevelt was a progressive. In foreign affairs he is identified with “Big Stick Diplomacy”, derived from an old West African adage: Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far. He believed that the best way to prevent war was to be prepared for conflict. In 1897, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he had famously declared in a speech at the Naval War College that no “triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumph of war”. In the Spanish-American war, the following year, he emerged as a hero and parlayed his exploits into a successful political career.
The 1935 peace prize was awarded to Carl von Ossietzky of Germany. He was a newspaper editor and anti-militarist, and stoutly opposed to Hitler. At the time of the award he was incarcerated in a concentration camp. He was nominated by among others, the Swiss National Assembly, Albert Einstein, Roman Rolland and Thomas Mann. Opposing the nomination were Vidkun Quisling and Knut Hamsun of Norway. Hitler was incensed by the award, and imposed a ban on Germans from accepting any Nobel Prize. Ossietzky would die in prison in 1938.
To many people, Mahatma Gandhi is the “strongest symbol of non-violence in the 20th century”. He was nominated repeatedly for the peace award -- in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, and finally in 1948 -- but did not win. Gandhi's omission does seem glaring, especially so in retrospect. The reasons for this are largely a matter of conjecture. During the Raj, the Nobel Committee may well have been inhibited by the possibility of a strong and adverse British reaction. Gandhi also had his share of critics who were not quite comfortable with “sharp turns in his policies”. To some, he was at the same time “a freedom fighter and a dictator”, an “idealist and a nationalist”. In 1947, after independence, Gandhi was nominated for the prize by the Chief Ministers of UP and Bombay, Govind Ballabh Pant and BG Kher, and also Speaker GV Mavalankar. That was, however, the year of the first Indo-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, and Gandhi was perceived to be “too strongly committed to one of the belligerents”. He was again nominated shortly before his death in 1948. Posthumous awards are, however, the exception and not the norm. The peace prize was not awarded that year. A brief statement explained that this was because “there was no suitable living candidate”. This can be construed as a silent show of honour to Gandhi. In 1960, Albert Luthuli of South Africa would become the first non-European to win the peace prize. The peace award is above all else a recognition of great achievements and endeavours. In recent times it has also been a “stimulus for settlement of regional conflicts”.
Since 1901, some 850 hugely talented men and women have won Nobel Prizes in six different fields. Only four individuals of this select fraternity have received the award twice. They are: Marie Curie for Physics in 1903 and for Chemistry in 1911, John Bardeen for Physics in 1956 and 1972, Frederick Sanger for Chemistry in 1958 and 1980, and Linus Pauling for Chemistry in 1954 and for Peace in 1962. Bangladesh's very own Nobel laureate, Dr Yunus did the country proud when he was awarded the Peace prize in 2006. Earlier, in 1993, he was a contender for the prize in Economic Sciences. A former Bangladeshi diplomat, who served in Stockholm in the decade of the 1990s, wrote on this in a newspaper column not long back. In recent years Yunus has been active in the promotion of social business, a concept that has evoked much interest in many countries. It is entirely possible that in the future Yunus may again be a credible candidate for the Economics prize. And if he does win, it will surely gladden the hearts of his friends and admirers the world over.
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