What the Swedes Read
A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate
by Daniel Handler
- LAUREATE: Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson (1974, Sweden)
- BOOK READ: Martinson, Views from a Tuft of Grass (translated by Lars Nordström and Erland Anderson); Johnson, The Days of His Grace (translated by Elspeth Harley Schubert)
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a tie! That’s probably not how they announced it back in October of 1974. A tie is not even the proper term for the rare occasions when the Nobel Prize in Literature’s gone to two people at once. Sharing the honor is the phrase that seems to crop up, and these shared honors look like political moves—when the prize is going to a country that the Nobel committee might not get back to in a while. (The novelist António Lobo Antunes, for example, was reportedly heartbroken when the Nobel went to José Saramago, because he knew they weren’t going to give it to Portugal again in his lifetime.) Still, there’s something about a shared prize that feels slighting, the A-minus of literary glory. I picture scenes like this:
EYVIND JOHNSON: Frans Eemil Sillanpää! Hey, dude! We’re both Nobel Prize winners. Cool, huh? Let’s party!
FRANS EEMIL SILLANPÄÄ: Hell yeah—wait, didn’t you share the prize? Give me that beer back!
But it’s not just the imaginary humiliations. There’s just something off-putting about deciding that two bodies of work are of exactly equal merit. I’m all for the notion that literature is such a varied seascape that it’s impossible to get your bearings, let alone arrange things in order; and I’m comfortable with the idea that, of course, some writers are better than others. But once the scorekeeping gets specific, it just feels wrong. What’s better, Guernica or Citizen Kane? The Velvet Underground and Nico or really good Mexican food? The Great Gatsby or your best friend in high school? These are ridiculous questions, and the fairest answer—ladies and gentlemen, it’s a tie!—somehow muddies all the contestants, even the enchiladas.
The Swedes feel differently, though. The presentation speech lays out a “cut-out silhouette of two remarkable literary profiles,” drawing parallels between two writers whose work is not very similar, but whose lives curiously are.