In 1901, the Swedish Academy bestowed the first Nobel Prize in Literature on Sully Prudhomme, a French poet of modest distinction in his time and barely remembered in our own. At the award ceremony, in Stockholm, the Academy’s Permanent Secretary, Carl David af Wirsén, extolled Prudhomme’s “introvert nature,” which he judged “as sensitive as it is delicate.” Wirsén went on in this decorous manner, never revealing that the Academy, in its deliberations, had considered giving the prize to Leo Tolstoy or Émile Zola. Later reporting revealed that Tolstoy’s sixteen subsequent nominations may have failed for ideological reasons; the Academy apparently took issue with his “half-rationalistic, half-mystic spirit.”
Any prize that is not purely objective—as, say, the gold medal for the hundred-metre dash is objective—is bound, at some point, to go to some suspect recipients. In 1942, “Citizen Kane” lost the Best Picture Oscar to “How Green Was My Valley.” Even the wisest jury can miss the mark. And yet the Swedish Academy may have abused the privilege of fallibility. In time, Prudhomme was joined in the history of dubious literature Nobels by Rudolf Eucken, Paul Heyse, Władysław Reymont, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Verner von Heidenstam, Winston Churchill, Pearl S. Buck, and Dario Fo. The list of non-Nobelists includes Joyce, Proust, Chekhov, Musil, Wharton, Woolf, Kafka, Brecht, Borges, Akhmatova, Rilke, Orwell, Lorca, Twain, Baldwin, Achebe, and Murakami, and stretches on from there. Despite this folly, the Nobel Prize remains an object of such desire that it can induce a kind of rueful despair in authors who wait in vain for the call from Stockholm. When Bob Dylan won the Nobel, in 2016, Philip Roth told friends how tickled he was for Dylan, and added that he only hoped that the following year’s award would go to Peter, Paul and Mary.
In October, the Swedish Academy will have the opportunity both to chip away at its record of overlooking many of the most profound writers in its field of vision and to help correct its woeful hesitation in standing up for the values it ought to champion. In the mid-nineteen-eighties, Salman Rushdie’s masterpieces, “Midnight’s Children” and “Shame,” had been translated into Persian and were admired in Iran as expressions of anti-imperialism. Everything changed on February 14, 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini condemned as blasphemous “The Satanic Verses,” a novel that he hadn’t bothered to read, and issued a fatwa calling for the author’s death. Khomeini’s edict helped inspire book burnings and vicious demonstrations against Rushdie from Karachi to London.
Rushdie, who could never have anticipated such a reaction to his work, spent much of the next decade in hiding and under heavy guard. The literary world was hardly unanimous in his defense. Roald Dahl, John Berger, and John le Carré were some of the writers who judged Rushdie to have been insufficiently attentive to clerical sensitivities in Tehran. Among the more cowardly acts of the time was the Swedish Academy’s refusal to issue a statement in support of Rushdie. The Academy waited twenty-seven years—a period during which booksellers in the United States and in Europe were firebombed and Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered––before it roused itself to condemn the fatwa as a “serious violation of free speech.” Stern stuff.
Rushdie, for his part, behaved with impeccable bravery and, even more remarkably, with good humor. As he put it in a recent essay, “While I had not chosen the battle, it was at least the right battle, because in it everything that I loved and valued (literature, freedom, irreverence, freedom, irreligion, freedom) was ranged against everything I detested (fanaticism, violence, bigotry, humorlessness, philistinism, and the new offense culture of the age).”
Through it all, Rushdie never stopped writing, and, eventually, he emerged from his highly sequestered existence and resumed teaching, lecturing, and enjoying himself. The tabloids seemed aghast that he would dare go to parties, concerts, and ballgames, as if this somehow undermined his standing as a hero of the free word. He didn’t care. He was so insistent on living his life without performing the role of a “Statue of Liberty,” as he put it, that he played himself on an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” counselling Larry David on the forbidden pleasures of “fatwa sex.” Solzhenitsyn was capable of many deeds, but not that.
At the same time, no one in our era has been a more tireless champion of free speech. As an essayist and as the president of PEN America, Rushdie spoke up for artists, writers, and journalists everywhere who were under assault. He has been especially vigilant in recent years about threats to free expression in the two largest democracies: India, where he was born and raised, and the United States, his adopted home for the past two decades. His judgments could sting. When a group of six writers refused to attend a PEN gala, in 2015, because it was honoring the editors of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Rushdie said, “If PEN as a free-speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name.” Of the writers who spurned the dinner, he said, “I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
Rushdie is seventy-five. Even though the current Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, effectively renewed the fatwa against him in 2017, the edict seemed to have lost its power. Rushdie almost never had bodyguards with him when he appeared in public. Earlier this month, after Rushdie took the stage to speak to a large audience at the Chautauqua Institution, in western New York, a young man in a black mask jumped him and stabbed him multiple times. Rushdie’s injuries are severe and will demand, according to his agent, Andrew Wylie, a prolonged period of recovery.
As a literary artist, Rushdie is richly deserving of the Nobel, and the case is only augmented by his role as an uncompromising defender of freedom and a symbol of resiliency. No such gesture could reverse the wave of illiberalism that has engulfed so much of the world. But, after all its bewildering choices, the Swedish Academy has the opportunity, by answering the ugliness of a state-issued death sentence with the dignity of its highest award, to rebuke all the clerics, autocrats, and demagogues—including our own—who would galvanize their followers at the expense of human liberty. Freedom of expression, as Rushdie’s ordeal reminds us, has never come free, but the prize is worth the price. ♦