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From politics to the most cruel rudeness: the revealed secrets of the Nobel Prize for Literature

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  • The “Ode to Stalin” almost left Neruda without a Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize for Literature has nothing to do with politics, but Pablo Neruda almost ran out of the 1971 medal for his “hymns to Stalin.” The news, which has just come to light, is the latest revelation in the most uncomfortable tradition of the Swedish academy: the declassification of the jury minutes of the most important award in letters fifty years after its award. Thanks to this rule, we have learned, in a delayed and dropwise manner, the ins and outs of such an illustrious award, privileged information that confirms that everything is more pedestrian if you look closely.

Perhaps the great protagonist of this story is the poet and professional hater Anders Österling , who was part of the institution for sixty-two years (absolute record) and left a good handful of rudeness for posterity.

For example: in 1967, when the candidacy of Borges for the Nobel Prize was being discussed, he, who was then the chairman of the Committee, no less, dismissed it on the grounds that it was “too exclusive or artificial in its ingenious miniature art.” With Tolkien , who had been proposed by his colleague CS Lewis in 1961, was more cruel. He said that it was not, “in any way, up to the standards of the highest quality narrative”, although the one named disliked even Shakespeare, so he still took it as a compliment … Anyway, in 1967 they distinguished Miguel Ángel Asturias and in 1961 to Ivo Andrić .

Samuel Beckett won the Nobel in 1969, but against Österling's will. In 1962 he ruled that “the bottomless nihilistic and pessimistic tendency of Samuel Beckett's work” was contrary to the spirit of Alfred Nobel, an argument he repeated in 1969, when the thing (the prize) was among the author of 'Waiting for Godot 'and another Frenchman, André Malraux , who was not exactly Mr. Wonderful either. He spoke, the critic, of the “depressing motives” of Beckett's literature, and ended up condemning it as “artistically staged phantom poetry, characterized by a bottomless disregard for the human condition.” Chimpún, it must have rang in his head.

Those opinions did not transcend until 2020, because in their day, when communicating the ruling, the Academy explained, in a worthy rhetorical display of a minister, at the very least, who had chosen Beckett “for his writing, which, renewing the forms of the novel and the drama, acquires its greatness from the moral destitution of modern man.” As soon as he heard the good news, the aforementioned confessed to his wife that it was “a catastrophe.” He accepted the recognition and the money, we imagine that with a lot of effort, but he refused to go to Stockholm, a gesture that Bob Dylan imitated in 2016. There are only forty-five years left to find out what they said about him…

A good distance separates the official version from the truth . In 1962 there were seventy-six candidates for the Nobel Prize for Literature, although none, apparently, aroused passions among voters. The documents of that year reveal that the award finally went to John Steinbeck for being “the least bad” of them all. The statement from the Academy, on the other hand, justified the decision “by his realistic and imaginative works, which combine sympathetic humor and an incisive social perception.” The novelist, by the way, was asked if he felt worthy of that honor. “Frankly, no,” he replied.

Henry Olson , a member of that 1962 committee, refused to award a poet, and for that reason he ruled out Robert Graves , which, although he had several novels, was always identified with his more lyrical side. That same reason earned him to ignore Ezra Pound , who also weighed his old sympathies with Mussolini. Some time later it was rumored that Borges was definitively crossed out due to his closeness to Pinochet, although this did not seem to matter as much in other cases, such as Gabo and, of course, Neruda's. Oh, politics.

In 2014 it was published that one of the candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963 was Charles de Gaulle , President of France. That happened a decade after, nothing more, than Winston Churchill , old ditto of the United Kingdom, won it «for his dominance of historical and biographical description, as well as for his brilliant oratory in defense of exalted human values.

Politics was also discussed in 1970, but for very different reasons. Then the Russian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel, although the deliberation was intense: there were those who feared for the safety of the writer, and then those who believed that he was a very difficult figure to assess because in his case the importance of his work could not be separated from his weight as an enemy of the Soviet regime. The matter was resolved with the judgment of Henry Olson: “Precisely because we gave the prize to the Stalinist Sholokhov in 1965, impartiality demands that we also give it to a more critical communist of the system, like Solzhenitsyn.” They see: no politics.

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