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Arts & Culture

How to Win the Nobel Prize

October 9, 2014 | by

A close reading of the Swedish Academy’s citations.


Reading the news about Patrick Modiano today, I was struck by the insipidness of the Nobel Foundation’s citation: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” It bears all the hallmarks of an overblown blurb, one of those in which a bold, gimlet-eyed novelist is elucidating the now, or a limpid, singular poet is saying the unsayable. (Very few poets are saying the sayable these days, if our blurbs are to be believed.)

Let’s unpack this citation, beginning with this business about “the art of memory,” which doesn’t seem like much of an art to me. (To conceive of it as such invites a corny geriatric punch line: “Just wait till you start forgetting so much!”) Granting that it is art, is it really the art through which Modiano “evokes”? That would have to be his writing. If he’d simply sat at his desk lost in memories, he wouldn’t evoke much more than his own sighs. For that matter—can one really “evoke” a destiny, and, having been evoked, is that destiny still “ungraspable,” let alone the most ungraspable? Who’s to say that one destiny can be grasped more easily than another? (“He was destined to be a pediatric podiatrist—he saw it plain as day.”) Then there’s this murky concept of the “life-world,” which sounds like something out of Heidegger—wouldn’t one word or the other have sufficed? To speak of a life-world implies its negative, the death-world, which, despite our best efforts, has never been uncovered.

Drafting these citations must be painstaking, fairly joyless work. This one, at least, reads like an act of circumlocution by committee; the choice to append “the most” to “ungraspable” may have occasioned hours of debate. And for what? The final result could apply to anyone; in the broadest terms, not just every writer but every person in history has practiced the art of memory, evoking destinies and uncovering life-worlds.

The Swedish Academy has more than a century of history to contend with, too—their citations are all on record, and perhaps they’re wary of leaning too much on expectable, well-worn adjectives. Certainly they have reason to worry: if you read through all the citations, you’ll start to detect certain patterns. Any aspirant Nobel Prize–winner should take note—these may hold the key to victory.

For starters, there’s idealism: it’s everywhere. When Alfred Nobel established the prize in 1895, his will stipulated that the judges should choose a writer who has produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”—a vague proviso, and one from which the Academy has since drifted somewhat. In the beginning, though, idealism was the order of the day, which made for some repetitive citations. In 1901 they cited Sully Prudhomme, the first-ever laureate, “in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.” Only eight years later, in 1909, Selma Lagerlöf earned the prize “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings.” In 1915 Romain Rolland won it “as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production.” Two years after that, the Academy at last dared to switch things up a bit, commending Karl Adolph Gjellerup “for his varied and rich poetry, which is inspired by lofty ideals.” They could scarcely find it in themselves to commend ideals that weren’t lofty—though I struggle to name a single ideal that isn’t.

The Academy also goes in for traditions a lot—especially, for whatever reason, Spanish and Russian traditions. They’ve issued citations saluting “the great traditions of the Spanish drama,” “the illustrious traditions of the Spanish drama,” “the classical Russian traditions,” “the great Russian epic tradition,” “the indispensible traditions of Russian literature” and “the tradition of Spanish poetry,” with a few other traditions thrown in for good measure. Easy enough, you might think—I’ll just stick to tradition and have this thing locked up in no time. Not so fast: contemporary appears seven times over the years.

It goes without saying that you should be great—that word pops up in eleven citations—but it also helps if you’re epic (also eleven). Oh, and fresh! Always keep it fresh. Your inspiration has to be fresh, you must exude “fresh originality”—no stale originality, please!—a “freshly creative style,” “fresh and beautiful verse” that “gives us fresh access to reality,” “endowed with freshness.” If you can’t muster that kind of thing, try instead to be lyrical (seven) or to master the mastery of masterpieces (seven again). And if you’re questing or searching for anything, best to make it truth (five). Last, keep it real: reality, realism, and realistic appear nine times.

By my lights, the freshest, realest, most masterly citation is probably the one for Harry Martinson, from 1974: “for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos.” It’s just as nonsensical as Modiano’s, but with much finer prosody. Cosmos appears in two citations, actually, meaning it’s of greater concern to the Academy than curiosity or vitality—those only receive one mention apiece. And so goes my advice to young writers: don’t be curious. Be cosmic.



  1. ace | October 9, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    Why so snide? Can’t we just be happy for Patrick Modiano without coming off so snarky about it? I agree that the committee’s word-usage when justifying their choice for the award is a bit incomprehensible, but what can we expect of sentences written by committee?

  2. Corey F | October 9, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    “…the choice to append ‘the most’ to ‘ungraspable’…”

    I do believe you rather mean “prepend” here. (Pedantry in response to pedantry? Heaven forfend!) An amusing piece all the same. Well done.

  3. CS | October 9, 2014 at 10:12 pm

    Mr. Piepenbring,

    Great post. Perhaps not epic—it’s a post, not Pushkin—though certainly fresh. Refreshing, really. I too thought the citation nonsensical. “Life-world”? I’ve never written “WTF,” but I’m tempted to here. Yes, surely one or the other would’ve sufficed.

    Kudos to you, Dan (and to Sadie—I daren’t forget her). The Daily is the best blog around. Where else would the prosody of a Nobel citation be appreciated?

    Oh, and thanks for the advice. Henceforth I shall eschew curiosity and vitality for a more noble pursuit, that of the cosmic.


  4. HegeL | October 9, 2014 at 10:22 pm

    An interesting exercise in pedantry, that is turned nonsensical by the fact that what is analyzed is not the Swedish source text, but the English rendition thereof…

  5. Life-World | October 10, 2014 at 3:16 am

    Why not have somebody who has actually read Modiano, and therefore utterly justified to explore his citation, to write something of value, say a close reading of his books, as opposed to this snarky piece?

  6. lm | October 11, 2014 at 2:52 am

    A safer way to win the Nobel prize is to write wonderful books, as Modiano has been doing for 45 years.
    What a lamentable article.

  7. maddugibbons | October 11, 2014 at 4:05 am

    I don’t get how someone could get off on writing this piece. wow. well at least the dwits got some attention by having the time to thumb-up-the-butt about an already established lit prize. so googling ‘nobel+modiano’ will pull this crap up huh? ever hear of a translation blowjoe? and ya. wtf to this essay. sum it up. sum it up. just keep summing.

  8. Kinoeye | October 11, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    “Writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos.” It seems to mean writing that expresses big ideas through the examination of small details.

    How is that nonsensical? Do you really not understand what is being expressed by that? Are you a lazy reader, or just being obtuse in order to justify your snark?

    I’m really surprised The Paris Review would publish this. It lowers my opinion of this fine, old literary journal.

  9. Samuel915 | October 12, 2014 at 3:25 am

    I couldn’t stop laughing. This was damn hilarious. All the lip-pursing, eye-rolling, head-shaking tarts leaving comments can suck a d. Maybe those “dewdrops” will help them “reflect the cosmos”, and if not, maybe they’ll at least dislodge the sticks they have shoved up their “arsles”, as our Swedish friends would say.

    Also, I’d never given a second thought to the citations. It’s rather amusing to think of these people sitting around a table putting this thing together. The arguing, parsing, and general exasperation must be bitter as hell. Lovely.

  10. pearl diver | October 12, 2014 at 8:01 pm

    I don’t see Dan Piepenboring winning any Nobel Prizes. What a pathetic article.

  11. Dan | October 16, 2014 at 7:16 am

    I agree with the other commenters saying this article is rubbish. The author couldn’t even be bothered to google words he didn’t know:

    Also, nonsensical citations from the Swedish academy are nothing new. Why is this article in the news instead of a piece actually critiquing Modiano’s work and his themes so we can find out how to win, you know, the Nobel.

6 Pingbacks

  1. […] Piepenbring, How to Win the Nobel Prize, The Paris […]

  2. […] The Paris Review, Dan Piepenberg has a snarky review of the grandiose, and often puzzling, citations issued by the Swedish Academy, which picks the […]

  3. […] The Paris Review, Dan Piepenberg has a snarky review of the grandiose, and often puzzling, citations issued by the Swedish Academy, which picks the […]

  4. […] The Paris Review, Dan Piepenberg has a snarky review of the grandiose, and often puzzling, citations issued by the Swedish Academy, which picks the […]

  5. […] this.  After Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few weeks ago, Dan Priepenbing wrote a humorous piece for The Paris Review on the overblown language of the Nobel citations.  But while his primary […]

  6. […] us to swallow. I am not going to repeat that citation but you can enjoy its surgical dissection by Dan Piepenbring of The Paris Review. What I am going to do is to try and overcome this loss after acknowledging my […]

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