Last October, when the Nobel Prize went to Gao Xingjian, a Chinese dissident novelist who lives in France, a statement from the foreign ministry in Beijing dismissed the news with contempt: "The Nobel Literature Prize has been used for ulterior political motives, and is not worth commenting on."
Given the historical record, it would be hard to quarrel with the first part of that reponse. The judges in Stockholm often use their power politically, though they also show a peculiar eagerness to dance at all possible weddings. In 1970 they gave the prize to the most famous anti-communist in the world, Alexander Solzhenitsyn; in 1971 to a communist, Pablo Neruda. This may have been to prove they were neutral, but it seems likelier that the late Barbara Frum got it right when she remarked, "The Nobel people like to be on top of the news."
On the other hand, the foreign ministry's notion that this isn't worth commenting on is dead wrong. People have been commenting on Nobel prizes, often passionately, since before the first one was awarded. In literature especially, the Nobel counts, no matter how often the judges misfire (the names of the first seven laureates in literature are now known only to the better encyclopedias).
Gao may be obscure, but the Nobel made him (along with the laureates in the sciences, economics and peace) part of an elite club whose members command attention. What he says will now automatically attract more notice than it would otherwise. China, which banned his play Bus Stop during the 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, can expect more trouble from him.
This year the prizes are a century old, and the Nobel Foundation will begin celebrating with an exhibition about creativity that opens in Stockholm in April and then goes on a world tour for several years. With various symposia and lectures also marking the centenary, we can expect to hear even more than usual about the Nobel prizes and the brilliant, wretched, emotionally crippled man who created them.
The prizes are so much a part of the landscape that we forget how radical they once were. There are similar awards today, such as the Pritzker in architecture, but when Alfred Nobel stipulated that no consideration be given to the nationality of candidates, he was expressing a brand new internationalism. His principles reflected the 18th-century universalist spirit articulated by Enlightenment philosophers; he erected a permanent institution on the idea that excellence rises above nation, race and tribe.
That seemed outlandish to many of his fellow Swedes, including King Oscar II, who didn't want the prize money to leave Scandinavia. It took the Swedish government half a century to make the Nobel Foundation tax exempt. Today, of course, Sweden considers the prizes part of its national culture.
Other nations sometimes find their lack of Nobel prizes a torture. It drives the Japanese crazy that their entire scientific establishment possesses fewer Nobels than (as the Japanese press points out annually) the California Institute of Technology.
And receiving the Nobel changes individuals: It becomes the first thing mentioned about them for the rest of their lives, and some discover there are drawbacks to having the word "great" tattooed on their foreheads. Arno Penzias, a German-American physicist who won in 1978 for his work on cosmic background radiation, found himself treated like scientific royalty. He once said, "I almost dread the end of a pleasant conversation when someone says, 'It's been an honour meeting you,' instead of saying 'a pleasure.' "
Alfred Nobel started all this at least partly because of a grotesque error by a journalist. He tried to live a private life, avoided what he called the buzz of renown and considered reporters "two-legged plague microbes."
Then he was given the dubious privilege of reading his own obituaries. In 1888, his brother Ludvig, an oilman in Russia, died. As Erik Bergengren says in Alfred Nobel: The Man and his Work (1962), "The world press, which for some reason confused the oil magnate Ludvig with the dynamite king Alfred, blossomed out in obituaries."
It was probably the mistake of an editor at a wire service in Paris, but in any case Nobel read the journalistic world's opinion of him. Kenne Fant notes in Alfred Nobel: A Biography (1993) that one French obit called him "a merchant of death." The result, Fant says, was that Nobel became so obsessed with his posthumous reputation that he left most of his fortune "to a cause upon which no future obituary writer would be able to cast aspersions."
Nobel had a genius for invention and a genius for finance, a rare combination. He not only tamed nitroglycerine and made it safe to handle in the form of dynamite, he also taught himself to run a huge international corporation.
But he had no talent for happiness, and his private life was a wasteland. He never married, because he couldn't form an enduring relationship with a woman. He had a mistress, whom he met when she was half his age and working behind the counter in a Vienna flower shop. He paid her bills for many years and dreamt of turning her into a gentlewoman, an idea she resisted. After she had a child by another man, Nobel saw her no more but still supported her. His mother, who lived till he was 56, was the only woman with whom he was emotionally close.
He once wrote that he should have been killed at birth by a humane doctor. Late in life he wrote to his sister-in-law: "I drift about without rudder or compass, a wreck on the sea of life." He predicted that he would end his days surrounded only by paid servants, with no one he loved close by.
And so it happened, when he was 63. In the autumn of 1896, at his Italian villa at San Remo, his heart was failing, and he noted ruefully in a letter that the doctors were treating him with nitroglycerine medicine. A stroke stripped away the five foreign languages he had learned, so that during his last days he could speak only stuttered Swedish, which his Italian servants couldn't understand.
But by then, of course, he had created an international language of generosity that would speak his name as far into the future as anyone could imagine.