The closing time approaches. In mid-afternoon the falling Norwegian winter darkness is painting the windows in an increasingly opaque blue-gray color. A regular at the library of the Nobel Institute closes a book in a mat slam, another one brings back a magazine to its place on a shelf before putting on his parka and going out. We do not greet each other but we do know, for the most diligent of us, that we'll meet again here tomorrow, perhaps as early as 8 o'clock, at the opening. In a small adjoining room, I hear the head librarian and her assistant. Soon, after everybody is gone, they will turn off the light and lock the heavy wooden door.
And what if, this time, I did not leave? The idea occurred to me more than once to hide in a corner to be trapped here. Spending a night alone in the Norwegian Nobel Institute, it is not reasonable of course. Moreover the place is probably equipped with an alarm system. A camera is watching you in the lobby. But still ... The committee that every year awards the Nobel Peace Prize with the brilliance that we know holds its meetings in the same building, upstairs. Much of the documentation which is used to select the winners lies somewhere in the archives. A mine of informations for historians and researchers wishing to decrypt the choice of the committee of five Norwegian "wise persons" and better understand how does the Nobel mechanics work.
During my first few days at the library I inadvertently discovered that the key one asks to the staff to have access to toilets on the ground floor of the Institute also opens the next door. After a hallway without interest, I found myself in a much larger space filled with bookshelves on several rows. Piles of documents are sleeping here in the dark. Impossible of course to gauge the content at a glance. Later, back at my working seat, I could not help but fantasize about the information collected in this dark room. Admittedly much of them are accessible to any researcher or journalist having duly made the request to conduct a specific project. But how not to think to the confidential data which are packed here away from inquisitive eye.
Because if it is transparent in its functioning and the set of rules that govern it, the system running all the Nobel prizes (peace, literature, medicine, physics, chemistry and – since 1969 – economics) isn’t transparent anymore the closer you get to its heart. Why the different entities entitled to award the most prestigious award choose particular winners rather than others, and why at those specific moments? How important is the human factor in the decision process? Can ideological preferences, personal enmities, relational or friendly acquaintances, distrust of principle with respect to representatives of a particular nationality remain foreign to many choices? Often presented as the pinnacle of literary excellence, the ultimate scientific research, the culmination of a commitment to a great cause, the Nobel Prize can not be objective. But that aspect, that I’ll decipher in these pages as much as possible, is not intended to be known outside a small circle of people involved. There is also no minutes of the proceedings taking place within the various committees awarding the Nobel Prize.
In addition researchers and handpicked journalists have access to confidential documents relating to each Nobel Prize only fifty years after it was awarded. A time-stamp instituted in 1973 by the Nobel Foundation, the guardian of the temple located in Stockholm. Half a century is a long time. It will not be before 2062 and beyond that we will find out who were the other potential candidates vying for the prize in 2012 and following, who had presented them to the various bodies awarding the prize, what arguments did they put forward in their respective choices, etc. These details will then have lost the salt of the news and will no longer risk to be criticized, if not perhaps by a few stubborn researchers. But let’s not complain: before 1973 there was no question to half-open the lid on the Nobel stew. Everything was to simmer in the greatest secrecy, and forever. A far cry from the idealized image of a hyper-transparent and accessible Scandinavia.
From the perspective of the Nobel Foundation it is nevertheless logical and understandable that this internal kitchen remains safe from prying eyes for several decades. The system is partly based on the advice of ad hoc experts consulted by the institutions awarding the prize. A too early disclosure of the reports would be likely to damage the careers of their authors, especially in science. Such discretion has also helped to shape the unrivaled reputation of these awards granted since 1901 (except the one in economics imposed much later, I’ll explain why). What other rewards are awaited with a bigger interest by book publishers and writers, by the scientific community or the political-diplomatic circles? What distinction has such a resonance in the media that it carries often previously unknown names to the ears of the general public ? Nobel’s name itself has become a trademark synonymous with proven quality and sustainable eminence. Read it backwards and you will see another (French) word: Nobel... Lebon. Thegood to be opposed to the "evil" if we stick to the Peace prize, reflecting an often very Western view of the distinctions, far from the initial concerns of their founder – which is not without bothering some purists.
In short, these distinctions awarded in Sweden (except the Peace prize, given out in Norway) are designed to reward the cream of each of the disciplines involved. Or at least what is supposed to be so. Because the choice of some winners has not always been clairvoyant, as shown in this historical investigation. Other figures were never rewarded when they could have legitimately claimed to be. The best known example is Mahatma Gandhi, absent from the list of the Nobel Peace prize laureates. Once again, human, political and geostrategic factors play an important role. This is particularly the case for the committee that awards that specific prize. Only five persons are composing it, all citizens of Norway, a prosperous country that stands on the fringes of Europe in a cozy provincial atmosphere, away from the cares of the world (except, gigantic exception, when a native "crusader" sows terror among his fellows in the name of a war against multiculturalism, as was the case on July 22, 2011).
These "wise persons", we shall see, are not always selected for their skills in the areas of foreign policy, history of international relations or issues of security and disarmament. In fact this is less and less the case. Each time they pick questionable laureates the controversy gets bigger. The latest one emerged in the wake of the 2009 prize awarded to President Barack Obama, throwing the Norwegian committee into a small crisis of legitimacy and sparking debate about its composition. Its independence is also questioned, particularly by China, furious at the award to the dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010. Without slipping into the Beijing leaders’ shoes one may indeed ask whether the handful of former Norwegian politicians who sit in the Nobel committee are the best suited to award such a world famous prize.
The Nobel Prize in Literature as well sometimes reflects in an obvious manner the inclinations of the members of the Swedish Academy which gives out the award. This is the most subjective of the Nobel prizes’ galaxy, as acknowledged by the scholars I met in Stockholm. The long list of rewarded personalities – as well as the one of the great absents – also refers to the mentality and the successive intellectual waves that have dominated Scandinavia, more or less in step with the rest of Western Europe. The slow opening towards South American, Asian, African literatures takes place only from the late 1960s. And what about the place left to women by the Swedish “Immortals"? For forty-five years, between 1946 and 1991, they only find one worthy enough to receive their prize. Again, one of the images Scandinavia likes to reflect, that of a region at the forefront of gender equality, gets hurt.
All things considered, the overall achievement of the Nobel institution remains extraordinary literally speaking. This deserves, to start with, to revisit the history up to the era of the Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, the man who discovered dynamite. What motivates him, at the beginning of the Belle Epoque, to create these awards? The reactions in Sweden and Norway to the disclosure of Nobel’s will are mixed, to say the least. Today these countries do not have to regret it was implemented, each annual prices generating a significant and mostly positive media coverage "between tradition and modernity." This is true especially for the prize ceremonies organized each year on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death, in the presence of the reigning royal families. The fortune left by the scientist to reward the laureates and to fund a well-oiled machinery also stirs curiosity. How is the money being managed, especially at this time of economic crisis? Is the increasing use of private sponsors a risk to the prizes’ independence and to the "Nobel brand", an expression that reflects a move towards the commercial sphere? These are some other questions I will discuss in the book, as well as well the sometimes very close ties that unite the body awarding the prize in medicine and some pharmaceutical companies.
Finally, human nature being what it is, an investigation into the mechanisms and behind the scenes of the Nobel Prizes would be incomplete if it would not narrate the efforts of countless individuals to get that beautiful distinction. Height of professional success and universal consecration often synonymous with significant monetary benefits, such rewards arouse the lust of the most thirsty ones for recognition, honors and emoluments. Since their launch, these prizes have been subject to campaigns to promote candidates. Lobbying is increasing with the prizes’ global impact. Simple courtesy visits, gifts, use of more or less influential go-betweens, … The range of resources used is quite broad. Anyway, we are assured in Stockholm and Oslo that the Scandinavian mindset is incompatible with such maneuvers. That does not mean, far from it, that the Nobel committees were never influenced in their decisions.
Histoire du prix Nobel
François Bourin Editeur, Paris, 2012, 240 pages