What do Tolstoy, Chekhov and Akhmatova have in common?
From the very first Nobel Prize in 1901, epic quarrels have erupted and rarely subsided over which great author or poet was truly worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his will, Alfred Nobel founded a distinct award for the author “who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” But how that has been interpreted over the past century or so has been the subject of articles, research papers and books.
It’s hard to imagine now that in that first year, Leo Tolstoy was not even among the 25 nominees. The first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the little-known French lyric poet and lyricist Sully Prudhomme, sparking indignation in European writing circles. Swedish authors and artists even penned a letter to Tolstoy expressing their objections to the decision of the Nobel Committee.
Later, however, he was nominated four years in a row, but the committee and the secretary of the Swedish Academy, Carl David af Wirsén, could not be moved. Wirsén was generally poorly disposed toward Tolstoy, and maintained that the author “denounced all forms civilization and insisted in replacing them with some primitive form of life, disembodied from every precept of high culture.”
Even though it is now generally agreed that the modern novel was born in Russia, and that Russian literature and poetry in the late 19th century Russian is considered among the world’s finest, there was not a single Russian among the winners before the prize’s award to Ivan Bunin in 1933.
Nominations failed to include Anton Chekhov after he took Russia and Europe by storm. The author of “The Cherry Orchard” and “Uncle Vanya” as well as so many beloved short stories is the most revered Russian playwright in the United States. The Symbolist poet and romantic idealist Alexander Blok was never nominated, and neither was the extraordinary poet Nikolai Gumilev, founder of the Acmeist movement and first husband of Anna Akhmatova.
The author, translator, historian and religious philosopher Dmitry Merezhkovsky was listed on several occasions and is a record holder of sorts: from 1914 there were eight attempts to include him among the candidates, and only in 1937 did the scholars of the committee issue their final rejection, deeming the writer’s “confused” compositions “ to be “mystical religious speculation.”
Another contender was Maxim Gorky, a classic figure of both Russian and Soviet literature. But the Nobel Committee responded unanimously to Gorky’s nomination in 1918 that his “anarchistic and often uniformly grey works do not in any way fit the framework of the Nobel Prize.”