The late Swedish Industrialist Alfred Nobel (1833-1898) established the Nobel Prizes “for the greatest benefit of mankind” in 1901, and ever since The Swedish Academy has been honouring men and women from all corners of the globe for outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, literature, peace, physiology, and medicine. As for the prize in literature, it was to be awarded year after year to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Amongst Nobel’s broad cultural interests was his love of literature from an early age, and in his late years he tried his hand at writing fiction, too.
Here are some facts about this award:
1. The first literature prize was awarded to French poet and essayist Sully Prudhomme in 1901 “in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.”
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2. In 1909, Selma Legerlof became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Legerlof wrote Jerusalem, which in 1996 was adapted into a movie by the same name. Her books were translated into thirty-four languages due to their popularity.
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3. The Nobel Medal for Literature was designed by Swedish sculptor and engraver Erik Lindberg and represents a young man sitting under a laurel tree who, enchanted, listens to and writes down the song of the Muse. The inscription reads: “Inventas vitam iuvat excoluisse per artes,” which, loosely translated, means, “And they who bettered life on earth by their newly found mastery.”
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4. There have been a few winners who have declined the acceptance of their award, among them Boris Pasternak, a Russian poet and writer who won in 1958. He was famously known for Doctor Zhivago, a novel set between the Russian Revolution and the Second World War. Pasternak’s work was not allowed to be published in the USSR and was forced to decline the award. Another person to decline was French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964, who claimed to decline all official honours. In his refusal letter he wrote that “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”
5. Alfred Nobel, “inventor of dynamite,“ may have been inspired to create the Nobel Prize after a premature obituary in a French newspaper called him a “merchant of death.” Talk about wanting to better your legacy! What happened was Alfred’s brother died and a local newspaper printed Alfred’s farewell by accident. When he saw it, the headline disturbed him. “The Merchant of Death is Dead” is what he read. Worried about how he would be remembered, he decided to invest 94% of his money into the five Nobel Prizes.
6. The youngest winner to date is Mumbai-born British author Rudyard Kipling, back in 1907. Then, aged 42, the author of The Jungle Book also became the first English-language winner.
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7. Other popular literature laureates include Seamus Heaney, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel García Marquez, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Tom Morisson.
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