Saturday, October 13, 2012

The other contentious Nobel Prize

Der Spiegel, which had no fewer than three articles about the Peace Prize yesterday, one of which wagged an admonitory though sad finger at David Cameron who, apparently, could not find it in him to say something nice about the EU "even now". If that is so, Mr Cameron gets this blog's full support for a change and very temporarily.

The newspaper did some finger-wagging of  its own about the other contentious Nobel Prize, the literature one. Personally, I think that is an even bigger joke than the Peace Prize, though it is awarded to people who have produced something by way of work. Mind you, nobody ever remembers who they are and, in any case, we all know that it is a matter of "buggins's turn", with the Swedish (this time) committee working out which country and which part of the world has not had one of those for a long time. They tend not to give it to a North American, especially not one from the United States despite a plethora of good and widely read writers there, as Philip Roth, for one, has pointed out. Americans do tend to win a very large proportion of the real Nobel Prizes in science but that is because political opinion is less important there and only scientific achievement matters. Unsurprisingly, some young hack at the Grauniad is unable to grasp that.

What Jason Farago does not mention in his headlong desire to prove that he is too sophisticated to read Philip Roth or Alison Munro but knows all about Mo Yan, this year's winner, is that this, too, is a political decision and aimed at being nice to the Chinese government.

As Der Spiegel writes:
After the Swedish Academy announced on Thursday that prolific novelist Mo Yan had become the first Chinese citizen to be awarded the prestigious prize, Beijing was quick to celebrate it as a national triumph. In a letter to the China Writers' Association, to which Mo belongs, the Communist Party's propaganda chief Li Changchun wrote that the award "reflects the prosperity and progress of Chinese literature, as well as the increasing influence of China." 
The historic news was also splashed across Chinese newspapers on Friday in a flurry of national pride -- unlike two years ago when imprisoned democratic activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Back then, Beijing spurned the accolade, calling it an affront to the award's tradition. In 2000, Beijing also disowned exiled writer and critic Gao Xingjian, now a French citizen, when he became the only other Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.
What does this remind me of? Ah yes. In 1958 the great Russian poet and author of Dr Zhivago, not published in the Soviet Union, Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize. This signalled the start of a terrifying campaign of vilification against the man in his country. This included "spontaneous" demonstrations that demanded his exile (and it could have been much worse). Pasternak tried refusing the prize and even wrote a letter to Khrushchev explaining what he had done. It did not help. He was submitted to the ordeal of a "trial" by the Writers's Union. The prize remained his though he never collected it.

Seven years later the Committee decided to pacify the Soviet government and awarded the Literature prize to Mikhail Sholokhov, a Soviet hack and ferocious commissar in the literary world, whose one good novel is widely held to have been written by someone else. To be fair, Solzhenitsyn was awarded it in 1970 but the story of Sholokhov was never forgotten. Well, now we have another Sholokhov.


  1. I notice that of the six Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, we have three Americans, one Briton, one Frenchman, and one Japanese. (All three of the non-Americans have worked in American labs at one time or another). Also, two of the six (the Frenchman and one of the Americans) are Jewish.

    This actually is a fair summary of where scientific expertise lies in the world.

  2. It is, indeed. But when it comes to literature it's anyone's guess.