Nobel champions (of Stalin) Pablo Neruda, left, and (of Hitler) Knut Hamsun. Photograph: AFP/Corbis
For all their august reputation, the Swedish poet’s fellow winners have a notably chequered history.
By John Dugdale
In becoming the 108th winner of the Nobel prize for literature, Tomas Tranströmer joins a curious club in which giants such as WB Yeats, Rabindranath Tagore, TS Eliot and Jean-Paul Sartre are outnumbered by obscure figures (often Scandinavian realist novelists or poets from Mediterranean or Latin countries) you’ve never heard of. Several should not be in at all, according to the contemporary interpretation of the prize’s rules as excluding anyone except imaginative writers; the roll of honour includes the philosophers Henri Bergson, Rudolf Christoph Eucken and Bertrand Russell, the Roman historian Theodor Mommsen and Winston Churchill, whose chronicle of the second world war (put together by young researchers) secured his entry as a historian. Erik Axel Karlfeldt, a Swedish poet, was not only dead when awarded the 1931 prize but until his death had been permanent secretary of the awarding body, the Swedish Academy. Two more little-known Swedes who were then academy members, Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, were scandalously jointly honoured in 1974.
Politically, the laureates range from Knut Hamsun, who eulogised Hitler, to Pablo Neruda, who composed an ode to Stalin, and Mikhail Sholokhov, who had been a Supreme Soviet member under him; left-of-centre views perhaps predominate (Jorge Luis Borges’s support for rightwing regimes is said to have put paid to his chances), but conservatives such as Eliot, François Mauriac and VS Naipaul have received the nod too. Creatively, authors at the avant-garde end of modernism or writing experimental novels, plays or poetry after 1945 are scarce – Eliot, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon and José Saramago are the most obvious adventurers. Conversely, Proust, Joyce and other difficult authors have been shunned.
Of the 107 laureates since 1901, only 12 have been women, and a longstanding European bias is evident when countries are ranked Olympics-style by wins: first France, then the US, UK, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Spain, followed by Russia/Soviet Union, Ireland and Poland all on level pegging. Naguib Mahfouz is so far the Arab world’s sole winner and is one of Africa’s four; Asia has had three, divided between India and Japan; Latin America and the Caribbean seven.