Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, but newly released archives reveal that just a year earlier, the secretive committee that selects the winners had raised serious concerns about whether his writing was consistent with the spirit of the award.
In the words of Alfred Nobel’s will, the honour goes to an author who has written “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. The winner is decided each year by the members of the Swedish Academy, with their deliberations kept secret for 50 years. Just-released documents from 1968 show the committee’s chairman, Anders Österling, writing that “regarding Samuel Beckett, unfortunately, I have to maintain my basic doubts as to whether a prize to him is consistent with the spirit of Nobel’s will”.
"Of course, I do not dispute the artistic effect of Beckett's dramas, but misanthropic satire (of the Swift type) or radical pessimism (of the Leopardi type) has a powerful heart, which in my opinion is lacking in Beckett," wrote Österling. He had previously slammed the possibility of the Waiting for Godot author winning the Nobel in 1964, when he said that he "would almost consider a Nobel prize for him as an absurdity in his own style".
The Irish author had been a popular choice with other committee members in 1968, who praised "the human compassion that inspires his work". Other leading contenders for the prize that year included French novelist André Malraux, British poet WH Auden and Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata.
Eugène Ionesco was considered, and hailed for the novelty he had brought to modern drama, but dismissed because of the controversial nature of his work
Other names put forward for the world's top literature prize in 1968 included Ezra Pound and EM Forster – both dismissed on account of their advancing ages – Chinua Achebe, Charles de Gaulle and Graham Greene. Vladimir Nabokov was again set aside by a jury that had previously described his novel Lolita as immoral, and was not inclined to change its mind; Eugène Ionesco was considered, and hailed for the novelty he had brought to modern drama, but dismissed because of the controversial nature of his work.
Australian author Patrick White, who would win the Nobel five years later, was already emerging in 1968 as a serious contender. The committee praised his "great novel" The Tree of Man, saying that White could be the "fifth continent's first full-time representative in literature".
Österling pushed for the choice of Malraux, despite the author’s position as minister of culture in De Gaulle’s government, but added that a prize for Kawabata “should prove justified and welcome”, as would one for Auden, even though “the groundbreaking stage of his poetry is now a while ago”.
Kawabata would go on to emerge triumphant, praised by the jury “for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind”.
The Nobel prize for literature was withheld last year after the Swedish Academy was hit by scandal
Beckett, despite Österling's previous reservations, would win the next year, "for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation". Auden, Malraux, Achebe, Pound, De Gaulle, Greene and Forster never won.
The 50-year embargo on the documents revealing the jury members' thoughts means that Nobel watchers will have to wait until 2066 to read the negotiations that went on before Bob Dylan was named as the 2016 Nobel laureate, "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition", a choice which was praised in some quarters and reviled in others.
The archives for 2018, however, are likely to be less illuminating in 2068: the Nobel prize for literature was withheld last year after the Swedish Academy was hit by scandal. Jean-Claude Arnault, husband of academy member Katarina Frostenson, was accused of sexual assault, later convicted of rape and sentenced to prison in October. A wave of resignations in the academy over its handling of the allegations followed, and it was subsequently decided to postpone the prize for a year "in view of … reduced public confidence".
The Nobel Foundation, which funds the prize, has said that it hopes the academy will become more transparent, with executive director Lars Heikensten saying: "The academy has cultivated a closed culture over a long period of time. This was likely to be challenged at one time or another."