In 1901, the Swedish Academy awarded the first Nobel Prize for Literature to Sully Prudhomme, a French poet of modest distinction in his day and barely remembered in our time. During the awards ceremony in Stockholm, the permanent secretary of the Academy, Carl David af Wirsén, praised the “introverted nature” of Prudhomme, whom he considered “as sensitive as delicate”. Wirsén continued in this proper manner, never revealing that the Academy, in its deliberations, had considered giving the prize to Leo Tolstoy or Émile Zola. Later reports revealed that Tolstoy’s subsequent sixteen nominations may have failed for ideological reasons; the Academy apparently challenged his “half-rationalist, half-mystical spirit”.
Any award that is not purely objective – like, say, the gold medal in the 100 meters is objective – is, at some point, intended for suspicious recipients. In 1942, “Citizen Kane” lost the Best Picture Oscar to “How Green Was My Valley.” Even the savviest jury can miss the mark. And yet the Swedish Academy may have abused the privilege of fallibility. Over time, Prudhomme was joined in the history of dubious Literature Nobel Prizes by Rudolf Eucken, Paul Heyse, Władysław Reymont, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Verner von Heidenstam, Winston Churchill, Pearl S. Buck and Dario Fo. The list of Nope-Nobelists includes Joyce, Proust, Chekhov, Musil, Wharton, Woolf, Kafka, Brecht, Borges, Akhmatova, Rilke, Orwell, Lorca, Twain, Baldwin, Achebe and Murakami, and expands from there. Despite this madness, the Nobel Prize remains such an object of desire that it can induce a sort of sorry despair in authors who wait in vain for the call from Stockholm. When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in 2016, Philip Roth told his friends how tickled he was for Dylan, and added that he only hoped the following year’s prize would go to Peter, Paul and Mary.
In October, the Swedish Academy will have the opportunity both to smash its record of forgetting many of the writers deepest in its field of vision and to help correct its sad reluctance to uphold the values that she should defend. By the mid-1980s, Salman Rushdie’s masterpieces “Midnight’s Children” and “Shame” had been translated into Persian and were admired in Iran as expressions of anti-imperialism. Everything changed on February 14, 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini condemned as blasphemous “The Satanic Verses”, a novel he had not bothered to read, and launched a fatwa calling for the death of the author. Khomeini’s edict helped inspire book burnings and vicious protests against Rushdie from Karachi to London.
Rushdie, who could never have foreseen such a reaction to his work, spent much of the next decade in hiding and under guard. The literary world was hardly unanimous in its defence. Roald Dahl, John Berger and John le Carré are among the writers who felt that Rushdie had not been sufficiently attentive to clerical sensibilities in Tehran. Among the most cowardly acts of the time was the Swedish Academy’s refusal to issue a statement supporting Rushdie. The Academy waited twenty-seven years – a period during which booksellers in the United States and Europe were burned down and Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered – before waking up to condemn the fatwa as a “violation serious matter of freedom of expression”. Harsh stuff.
Rushdie, for his part, carried himself with impeccable bravery and, most remarkably, with good humor. As he said in a recent essay, “If I hadn’t chosen the battle, at least it was the right battle, because in it everything I loved and valued (literature, freedom, ‘irreverence, freedom, irreligion, freedom) was ranged against everything I hated (bigotry, violence, fanaticism, lack of humor, philistinism and the new culture of offense of era).
Through it all, Rushdie never stopped writing, and eventually he emerged from his highly sequestered existence and returned to teaching, lecturing, and entertaining. The tabloids seemed appalled that he dared to go to parties, concerts and ball games, as if that somehow undermined his position as a hero of free speech. He didn’t care. He was so insistent on living his life without playing the role of a “Statue of Liberty”, as he put it, that he played himself in an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, advising Larry David on the forbidden pleasures of “sex fatwa”. .” Solzhenitsyn was capable of many actions, but not this.
At the same time, no one in our time has been a more tireless champion of free speech. As an essayist and president of PEN America, Rushdie has stood up for artists, writers and journalists around the world who have been attacked. He has been particularly vigilant in recent years about threats to freedom of expression in the two largest democracies: India, where he was born and raised, and the United States, his adopted country during the last two decades. His judgments might sting. When a group of six writers refused to attend a PEN gala, in 2015, because it honored the editors of the French satirical magazine Charlie HebdoRushdie said, “If PEN as a free speech organization cannot defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, so frankly the organization is not worth its name. Of the writers who rejected the dinner, he said, “I hope no one ever comes after them.”
Rushdie is seventy-five years old. Even though Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei did renew the fatwa against him in 2017, the edict appears to have lost its power. Rushdie almost never had bodyguards with him when he appeared in public. Earlier this month, after Rushdie took the stage to address a large audience at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, a young man wearing a black mask jumped on him and slammed him. stabbed several times. Rushdie’s injuries are serious and will require, according to his agent, Andrew Wylie, a long recovery period.
As a literary artist, Rushdie is well deserving of the Nobel Prize, and the case is only increased by his role as an uncompromising defender of freedom and a symbol of resilience. No such move could reverse the tide of illiberalism that has engulfed so much of the world. But, after all its baffling choices, the Swedish Academy has the opportunity, responding to the ugliness of a state death sentence with the dignity of its highest honor, to reprimand all religious, autocratic and demagogues – including our own – who would galvanize their supporters at the expense of human freedom. Freedom of expression, as Rushdie’s ordeal reminds us, has never been free, but the price is worth the price. ♦