Just 48 hours before its annual announcement of the Nobel Prize in literature, the Swedish Academy was embroiled in a bitter and public dispute over last year’s winner.
One of the lifetime academy members quit Tuesday, saying that giving the 2004 prize to Austrian feminist writer Elfriede Jelinek had tarnished the world’s most prestigious literature prize.
Knut Ahnlund, 82, who has not played an active role in the academy since 1996, said picking Jelinek had caused “irreparable damage” to the award’s reputation.
“A recurring trait of Jelinek’s authorship is its bloated volume which stands in devastating contrast to its thinness in terms of ideas and visions,” Ahnlund wrote in the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.
In last year’s decision, the academy cited the “musical flow of voices and counter-voices,” in Jelinek’s writing. Most of her works are known for jolting readers with their frank descriptions of sexuality, pathos and conflict between men and women.
Active academy members dismissed Ahnlund’s criticism, adding it had not affected their work this year.
“This is actually quite insignificant, and it does not affect the work at all,” academy member Birgitta Trotzig told Swedish Radio.
Academy fights back
The 18-member Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, noted that Ahnlund withdrew from the academy’s work in 1996 and was no longer part of the selection process.
“Since then his chair has been vacant, with the exception of three or four casual visits, mostly on holidays,” Engdahl wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
He added that the academy does not explain its decisions beyond what is in the prize citation, and does not respond to criticism from people who dislike its picks.
Two other members of the Swedish Academy, Kerstin Ekman and Lars Gyllensten, left in 1989 to protest the academy’s failure to express support for Salman Rushdie after a fatwa calling for his death was issued by Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Their seats have remained vacant because members can only be formally removed if they die or if the academy decides to do so.
Gyllensten backed Ahnlund’s criticism, adding he did not support Jelinek winning the prize.
“I said to myself then that ’this is nothing that I care to read’ and I have not done so; neither have I seen her plays or films,” he told Svenska Dagbladet.
Annelie Eldh, of Forum, which publishes Jelinek in Sweden defended her work.
“I think it was a brave choice (by the academy) because she is so controversial in Austria, too,” she said. “She is a writer with a great impact.”
The controversy erupted as the Swedish Academy announced it would present this year’s winner on Thursday in the Swedish capital, ending a weeklong wait.
The academy, which has awarded the literature prize since 1901, surprised many observers when it did not announce the prize last week. The rest of this year’s Nobel Prizes have already been announced.
Favorites for this year’s $1.3 million prize include Americans Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates along with Margaret Atwood of Canada and Nuruddin Farah of Somalia.
Other writers touted as possible winners include Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said, known as Adonis; Korean poet Ko Un; and Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer.
The prizes are handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.