How to Win the Nobel Prize


Arts & Culture

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.