Nobel Prize

Wreathed in controversy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 November, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 November, 2000, 12:00am


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NEXT MONTH WILL see the annual jamboree when this year's Nobel laureates get their medals and fat cheques. In all the pomp and publicity, questions about the validity of such awards will be forgotten and few who watch the ceremony on television will remember much about the man who started it all, except that he invented dynamite.

If Alfred Nobel felt guilty about being an armaments manufacturer, he never showed it. He saw it as strictly business. But he was not your typical arms dealer. A cultured man, Nobel was fluent in several languages and a writer of poetry and plays. Although he made his fortune from war, he hoped that mankind would finally find a way to live without wars. In his will he explained that he wanted a peace prize to encourage 'fraternity among nations . . . abolition or reduction of standing armies, or promotion of peace congresses'.

He died in 1896 and it took five years of bickering within the Nobel Foundation and its nominating committees before the first prizes were awarded. The in-fighting continues to this day.

The Nobel committee of the Swedish Academy, which chooses the literature laureate, was, in 1901, full of old men with Victorian attitudes. The committee rejected Leo Tolstoy's nomination, because it thought his work contained 'ghastly naturalistic descriptions'.

Throughout its chequered history, the literature prize has left several other geniuses out in the cold and often honoured mediocre authors.

Writers who have the best chance are those who have lived to a ripe old age and whose material is uplifting. As the critic Herbert Howarth put it, the prize is like 'a death mask on fulfilled grandeur'.

Novelists like Graham Greene and Vladimir Nabokov who tell it as they see it never had a chance.

Burton Feldman writes: 'The Nobel's shying from literature too intimate with the dangers and extremism of our age shows in the number of awards to less disturbing matters.'

The committee did display a positive shift in attitude in 1969 when the award went to Samuel Beckett, and Feldman thinks its record has improved. But with so many languages out there, the committee faces an impossible task. Many parts of the world are neglected. Asia had only three laureates, one Indian (Rabindranath Tagore), two Japanese (Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe), when this book was published, although it now has a fourth with this year's winner, China's Gao Xingjian.

Says Feldman: 'The nagging possibility remains that remarkable literature may exist in Asia or Africa or one of the vast linguistic reaches scarcely explored by the Nobel jury.'

The peace prize has also enjoyed its fair share of brickbats. For the first half of the 20th century, it mostly went to officials involved in peace treaties and peace congresses. In 1960, it underwent a significant sea-change when anti-apartheid leader Albert Luthuli won. Before then the emphasis was on those who tried to prevent wars between nations. With Luthuli, the committee recognised the role of those who struggle for peace and human rights within a nation. Unlike the literature prize, Asia figures prominently in this category, probably because of the disproportionate number of ugly regimes in the region.

For the most part, Feldman's book is a readable and interesting account of almost 100 years of the world's most famous prizes. While he is sceptical, he comes down largely in favour of the Nobel institution, except for the economics prize introduced in 1968 because, like a number of prominent economists and previous winners, he sees it as 'an inexact field'.

Where he loses me is in the chapters on the physics, chemistry and medicine prizes. The human stories of pioneers sacrificing everything to advance the boundaries of science are fascinating, such as Marie Curie destroying her hands experimenting with radium. However, quite rightly Feldman has to deal with the details of all the discoveries honoured and this often involves complex descriptions of scientific theory. As someone who does not even know what to do with a Bunsen burner, most of that passed over me.

I ended the book much the wiser, but just as cynical about a foundation that, with the exception of the peace prize, may have outlived its usefulness.

The Nobel Prize

by Burton Feldman

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