July Books 15) The Nobel Prizes

15) The Nobel Prizes, by Burton Feldman

I bought this when I visited the Nobel Museum last year, since when my then employers came (we were told) fairly close to winning the Peace Prize, which would have brought the subject matter a bit closer to home. It’s a good book, and I wasn’t especially surprised to find that Feldman is a scholar in the history of ideas. He gives an interesting introduction, first to the life and times of Alfred Nobel himself (whose elder brothers opened up the oil industry in Baku, now the capital of Azerbaijan; Alfred invented dynamite) and then to the machinations around the establishment of the prize – which would have come to naught had the Swedish government not decided that it was a matter of state interest for the prizes to be instituted as a semi-state responsibility.

He then runs through the categories, in all of which there have been questionable awards and clear omissions. The worst offender is the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was not awarded to either Joyce or Proust, but did go to various utterly forgotten writers (sometimes for political reasons, sometimes just because they wrote long best-selling sagas) during the lifetime of both. (Feldman sees Beckett’s Nobel Prize as a compensation for missing Joyce, which I think is a bit unfair on Beckett.) I learnt more about economics from Feldman’s account of the relevant Prize (not strictly a Nobel as it was only instituted in 1969) than I have from any other single source, and raved so enthusiastically about it yesterday to a visiting friend (who is the best-known economist in his country – admittedly a rather small country) that he asked for a photocopy of the relevant chapter.

But the Physics, Chemistry and Physiology/Medicine prizes do seem on the whole to have hit the mark, despite their rampant politicisation, with the odd embarrassing miss (eg Pavlov, for an experiment that did not actually work; though his later research probably makes up for it). And the Peace Prize is clearly a mark of recognition which carries a huge amount of weight on the world political stage. Feldman’s book dates from 2000; I remember watching an interview with Jimmy Carter, shortly after he got his award in 2002, and his reply to the question of whether he had ever regretted that the Peace Prize could only be divided two ways rather than three, since that knocked him out of the running as a co-laureate with Begin and Sadat in 1978: his reply was along the lines of “oh, only about once a day, for about twenty-four hours each time.” He doesn’t, however, answer the mystery of why Nobel charged the Norwegians with the responsibility of the Peace Prize, rather than the Swedes who do all the others.

In the midst of the occasionally bizarre discourse around my review of Old Man’s War last year, one infuriated protagonist asked me rhetorically if I would have Hemingway’s Nobel for Literature revoked on the grounds of his political views. My reply at the time was that it’s up to the Nobel folks who they choose, but since they clearly make decisions on political grounds, I feel perfectly entitled to criticise their choice on political grounds. Feldman’s account makes me even more certain of that.

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