Tue, Oct 08, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Nobel controversies

Disagreements are constant for the peace and literature prizes

AP, STAVANGER, Norway

A bust of the Nobel Prize founder, Alfred Nobel.

Photo: AP

Controversy stalks the Nobel prizes for peace and literature in a way it rarely does for science.

The revamped panel at the Swedish Academy who will hand out the Nobel Literature prizes Thursday for both last year and this year would relish arguments about the winners, rather than intrigue about the #MeToo scandal that forced the institution to suspend the prize last year.

And US President Donald Trump has done his part to kindle intrigue about this year’s Peace Prize winner, by simultaneously seeming to pitch himself for the prize while also slamming the Norwegian panel that awards it.

‘NATURAL EFFECT’

“Controversy is a natural effect of the Literature Prize,” says Mats Malm, the Swedish Academy’s new permanent secretary, appointed to head a reformed 18-person panel after two years of convulsions at the prestigious institution. “We want to contribute to the international discussion about literature and what it is supposed to be.”

The literary science professor is leading an overhaul of the body, which was ripped apart in late 2017 and last year by sex assaults involving Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of a former academy member and a once-notable figure on Sweden’s cultural scene.

Arnault was convicted last year of two rapes in 2011 but not before accusations of abuse had led to an exodus of academy committee members, the ouster of then-permanent secretary Sara Danius and the absence of a Nobel Literature prize for the first time since 1943 at the height of World War II.

With a threat hanging from the Nobel Foundation — the body behind the Nobel Prizes — that the Swedish Academy could be stripped of its right to award the prize, the academy brought in five external members to help adjudicate the two literature awards this year. At the same time, it ousted everyone involved in the scandal and it “no longer includes any members who are subject to conflicts of interest or criminal investigations,” according to the foundation.

Across the border, the five-person Norwegian Nobel Institute that oversees the Peace Prize usually claims not to enjoy the controversy that accompanies its choices. But Geir Lundestad, the non-voting secretary of the committee from 1990 to 2014, says some members have traditionally thrived on the controversies that the high-profile prize inevitably brings.

“I am not sure the differences between the two committees are so big. The literature and peace prizes are more accessible to ordinary people than the prizes for medicine, physics and chemistry,” he says. “Some of the members enjoy the controversy that brings. It varies tremendously between members. But many recognize that some sort of controversy goes with the territory.”

The Nobel committees never announce the names of candidates and nominations are not revealed for 50 years.

Lundestad was in charge when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to former US President Barack Obama within months of his inauguration in 2009 — a prize that has attracted the ire of Trump, his successor.

Obama was there “for about 15 seconds” before he was awarded the prize, Trump told a press conference in February. Trump has been nominated for the Peace Prize by US congressmen for opening a dialogue with North Korea.

“I’ll probably never get it, but that’s OK,” Trump said. “They gave it to Obama. He didn’t even know what he got it for.”

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