The Nobel and the ignoble (Part 1)

On October 23rd 1969, the great Irish writer Samuel Beckett was on holiday in Tunis with his wife Suzanne when he received some…

On October 23rd 1969, the great Irish writer Samuel Beckett was on holiday in Tunis with his wife Suzanne when he received some news that horrified him. It came in the form of a telegram from his French publisher Jerome Lindon which included the words "Je vous conseille de vous cacher": "I advise you to go into hiding." This shameful, horrifying news was not the revelation of some great crime or scandal, nor even of the death of a loved one. Lindon was instead relaying to Beckett the gist of a telegram he himself had received that morning from the Swedish Academy informing him that Beckett had been chosen as the recipient of the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Suzanne Beckett described the news as a "catastrophe". Samuel Beckett himself was, according to his official biographer James Knowlson, appalled and distressed.

When December 10th, the day of Alfred Nobel's death and traditionally the day of the Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo, arrived (Beckett called it "Nobloodybeldamday"), Jerome Lindon accepted the prize for his author and attended the official dinner at the Irish embassy in Stockholm on his behalf. Beckett gave away the money - then about £30,000 - as quickly as he could, much of it to the library of Trinity College Dublin.

Beckett's reaction was by no means typical of those honoured with the various Nobel awards. The first Irish laureate, William Butler Yeats, who won the Literature prize in 1923, famously asked the journalist who informed him of the honour how much money was involved, and revelled in the courtly aspects of the awards ceremony. There is no doubt that when they step up on the podium at Oslo Town Hall next week to receive the Peace Prize, John Hume and David Trimble will be only too happy to bask in the warmth of international approval.

But Beckett's horror was not unique either. Since the Nobel Foundation was established in 1900, there have been many times when its various awards have reflected not harmonious consensus, but the divided and contrary nature of the modern world. Another Irish laureate, George Bernard Shaw, for example, initially declined the 1926 Literature Prize, writing to his Swedish translator that: "If the prizes are to be reserved on Safety First principles for old men whose warfare is accomplished, the sooner they are confiscated and abolished by the Swedish government the better." When his wife Charlotte insisted that he should accept the award as a tribute to Ireland, he did so, but refused to accept the money that came with it, arranging instead that it be used to establish a foundation for the translation into English of the best works of Swedish literature.

One satiric running commentary on the Nobel prizes are the IgNobel prizes awarded by a group of scholars at Harvard University to "individuals whose achievements cannot or should not be reproduced". In recent years, for example, their economics prize has gone to the rogue trader Nick Leeson who brought down Barings Bank, for "using the calculus of derivatives to demonstrate that every financial institution has its limits". The laureates for medicine and public health include the tobacco company scientists who claimed to have shown that nicotine is not addictive, a group of researchers who completed a study entitled The Effects of Unilateral Forced Nostril Breathing on Cognition, and a Norwegian team for their study on Transmission of Gonorrhea Through an Inflatable Doll. The IgNobel prize for physics has gone to such high achievers as a British scientist who showed why toast always falls on the buttered side and the Japanese Meteorological Agency for its seven-year study of whether earthquakes are caused by catfish wiggling their tails. The biology prize has been conferred on two more Norwegians for their pioneering work on The Effect of Ale, Garlic and Soured Cream on the Appetite of Leeches. The IgNobel peace prize has been awarded to such luminaries as the father of the hydrogen bomb and architect of the Star Wars missile defence system, Edward Teller, for his brilliant re-definition of "peace" as mutually assured destruction, former Los Angeles chief of police Daryl Gates for his role in fomenting riots, and the French president Jacques Chirac for marking the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima by carrying out nuclear tests in the Pacific.

The IgNobels are, in part, simply an attempt to puncture the inflated rhetoric of the sciences and the high claims of office-holders. But they come, especially where the Nobel Peace Prize is concerned, uncomfortably close to the bone. At times, recipients of the Nobel could just as reasonably be awarded the IgNobel. The satirists have often been outdone by the reality. Giving the IgNobel prize for economics to Nick Leeson does not look so biting an exercise in derision when you consider that last year the real Nobel prize for economics was awarded to Robert Merton and Myron Scholes, partners in a giant hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, that turned out to be spectacularly wrong about this year's economic trends. In one obvious way, of course, the Nobel Foundation invites scepticism by the very fact that the world's most prestigious peace prize is funded from the will of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. Bernard Shaw remarked in a private letter shortly after he became a Nobel laureate himself that "the spectacle of other nations begging prizes from a Swedish dynamite millionaire for their art and literature and science revolts me".

The winners of the literature prize, for example, hardly constitute a list of the century's greatest writers. Who now remembers such laureates as Sully Prudhomme, Rudolf Eucken, Giosue Carducci, Selma Lagerlof, Carl Gustav von Heidestam and Karl Adolph Gjellerup? On the other hand, James Joyce, widely acknowledged as the greatest prose writer of the century, never got the prize - even though he was actually nominated for it by Desmond FitzGerald, father of Garret and then a minister in the Free State government. Bertolt Brecht, universally seen as one of the century's greatest dramatists, never got the prize either. More seriously, the peace prize has been awarded to some of the 20th century's most inveterate warmongers. While David Trimble's credentials as an appropriate peace prize winner have sometimes been questioned because of his behaviour at Drumcree, compared to many of his predecessors he is almost supernaturally inoffensive. Throughout the century, it has sometimes seemed that the most important qualification for the peace prize is having blood on your hands.

Theodore Roosevelt, who received the peace prize in 1906, was such an enthusiastically jingoistic supporter of the United States' imperial wars against Spain that he formed his own military unit, the Rough Riders, to fight in Cuba in 1898. Political leaders on the victorious side in the appalling carnage of the first World War did very well when it came to handing out subsequent Nobels. Aristide Briand, joint winner of the 1926 peace prize, was a senior figure in the French government during the war. Charles Gates Dawes, the peace laureate in 1925, was in charge of purchasing arms for the United States armies in the same war, into which his country was led by Woodrow Wilson, winner of the 1919 Nobel peace prize.