Isaac Singer wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Isaac Singer wins Nobel Prize in Literature

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On October 5, 1978, Isaac Bashevis Singer wins the Nobel Prize in Literature. Singer wrote in Yiddish about Jewish life in Poland and the United States, and translations of his work became popular in mainstream America as well as Jewish circles.

Singer was born in Poland in 1904 into a long line of Hasidic rabbis. He studied at the Warsaw Rabbinical Seminar, and inspired by his older brother Joshua, a writer, he began to write his own stories and novels. He published his first novel, Satan in Goray, in Poland in 1935.

The same year, he immigrated to the United States, where Joshua had already moved, to escape growing anti-Semitism in Europe. In New York, he wrote for a Yiddish-language newspaper. His mother and another brother were killed by the Nazis in 1939, the same year that Singer married Alma, the daughter of a Jewish merchant who had fled to the United States. In 1943, Singer became a U.S. citizen. His best-known works include The Family Moskat (1950), The Manor (1967), and The Estate (1969), all about the changes in and disintegration of Jewish families responding to assimilation pressures. Singer’s work is full of Jewish folklore and legends, peopled with devils, witches, and goblins. He wrote 12 books of short stories, 13 children’s books, and four memoirs. One of his stories, Yentl, was made into a movie directed by and starring Barbara Streisand in 1983. Singer divided his time between New York and Miami until his death, in 1991.

Animal rights and the Holocaust

Several writers, including Jewish Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, and animal rights groups have drawn a comparison between the treatment of animals and the Holocaust. [1] The comparison began immediately after the end of World War II, when Jewish writers recounted the lack of resistance by European Jewish victims of the Holocaust, who were led to their death as "sheep to slaughter". [2] The comparison is regarded as controversial, and has been criticized by organizations that campaign against antisemitism, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. [3]

A character in one of Singer's stories described the treatment of animals by humans as "an eternal Treblinka". [4] Similarly, the eponymous character in J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello compared the Nazis' treatment of Jews to methods used by the meat industry to herd and slaughter cattle. [5]

About Isaac Bashevis Singer

Isaac Bashevis Singer was one of the great storytellers of the twentieth century. His writing is a unique blend of religious morality and social awareness combined with an investigation of personal desires. Though his work often took the form of parables or tales based on a nineteenth century tradition, he was deeply concerned with the events of his time and the future of his people and their culture.

Isaac Bashevis Singer was born on July 24, 1904 in Radzymin, Poland. His parents were religious Jews and pushed him towards a career as a religious scholar. In 1921 he enrolled in Rabbinical School, but left only two years later to work for a Yiddish literary magazine. Though his rabbinical studies would remain a strong influence on him, he longed to be a part of a literary community. Working as a journalist, translator, and proofreader, Singer began to write short stories on the side. By 1935 he had published his first book, SATAN IN GORAY (1935).

That same year, Singer followed his brother, Isaac Joshua Singer to America. Isaac Joshua Singer is considered one of the major Yiddish writers of the twentieth century, and was the first and greatest literary influence on his younger brother Isaac. In New York, Isaac Bashevis Singer began working for THE JEWISH DAILY FORWARD, a Yiddish newspaper dedicated to issues of interest to its newly immigrated readership. During the 1940s Singer published his work in a number of journals as well as serially in the THE FORWARD. Throughout his career, Singer would continue to be a contributor and supporter of THE FORWARD, which remains in existence today as a weekly .

Throughout the 1940s, Singer’s reputation began to grow among the many Yiddish-speaking immigrants. After World War II and the near destruction of the Yiddish-speaking peoples, Yiddish seemed a dead language. Though Singer had moved to the United States, he believed in the power of his native language and knew that there was still a large audience that longed for new work, work that would address the lives and issues of their his. In 1950 Singer produced his first major work, THE FAMILY MOSKAT—the story of a twentieth century Polish Jewish family before the war. He followed this novel with a series of well-received short stories, including his most famous, “Gimpel, The Fool.”

Though not primarily nostalgic, Singer’s work hearkened back to a former time. The setting for much of the work was his native Poland, and the writing addressed existential and spiritual questions through folk tales and parables. These works caught the attention of a number of American writers including Saul Bellow and Irving Howe, who were greatly responsible for not only translating Singer’s work, but championing it as well. Throughout the 1960s Singer continued to write on questions of personal morality. One of his most famous novels (due to a popular movie remake) was ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY, in which a Holocaust survivor deals with his own desires, complex family relationships, and the loss of faith. Singer also wrote two novels about nineteenth century Polish-Jewish history before returning to more modern topics in the 1970s.

By the 1970s, he had become a major international writer. After World War II there were few Yiddish writers remaining and Singer was not only a vocal proponent of Yiddish writing, but the major figure in Yiddish letters. Throughout the 1970s he wrote dozens of stories that were eventually collected into books, and published in Yiddish and English as well as many other languages. He branched out, writing memoirs and children’s books as well as two other major novels set in the twentieth century, THE PENITENT (1974) and SHOSHA (1978). The same year as his publication of SHOSHA, Singer won the Nobel Prize in literature. For many, this award was bittersweet in that it brought worldwide attention to an important language at the same time it seemed to signal the language’s demise.

After being awarded the Nobel Prize, Singer gained a monumental status among writers throughout the world. He continued to write during the last years of his life, often returning to Polish history which so entranced him throughout his early life. In 1988 he published THE KING OF THE FIELDS and three years later, SCUM, a story of a man living in an early-twentieth-century Polish shtetl. That same year, Isaac Bashevis Singer died at the age of eighty-seven in Surfside, Florida. Incredibly prolific, Singer created an insightful and deep body of work that will forever remain an important part of literary history.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

The storyteller and poet of our time, as in any other time, must be an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not just a preacher of social or political ideals. There is no paradise for bored readers and no excuse for tedious literature that does not intrigue the reader, uplift him, give him the joy and the escape that true art always grants. Nevertheless, it is also true that the serious writer of our time must be deeply concerned about the problems of his generation. He cannot but see that the power of religion, especially belief in revelation, is weaker today than it was in any other epoch in human history. More and more children grow up without faith in God, without belief in reward and punishment, in the immortality of the soul and even in the validity of ethics. The genuine writer cannot ignore the fact that the family is losing its spiritual foundation. All the dismal prophecies of Oswald Spengler have become realities since the Second World War. No technological achievements can mitigate the disappointment of modern man, his loneliness, his feeling of inferiority, and his fear of war, revolution and terror. Not only has our generation lost faith in Providence but also in man himself, in his institutions and often in those who are nearest to him.

In their despair a number of those who no longer have confidence in the leadership of our society look up to the writer, the master of words. They hope against hope that the man of talent and sensitivity can perhaps rescue civilization. Maybe there is a spark of the prophet in the artist after all.

As the son of a people who received the worst blows that human madness can inflict, I must brood about the forthcoming dangers. I have many times resigned myself to never finding a true way out. But a new hope always emerges telling me that it is not yet too late for all of us to take stock and make a decision. I was brought up to believe in free will. Although I came to doubt all revelation, I can never accept the idea that the Universe is a physical or chemical accident, a result of blind evolution. Even though I learned to recognize the lies, the clichés and the idolatries of the human mind, I still cling to some truths which I think all of us might accept some day. There must be a way for man to attain all possible pleasures, all the powers and knowledge that nature can grant him, and still serve God – a God who speaks in deeds, not in words, and whose vocabulary is the Cosmos.

I am not ashamed to admit that I belong to those who fantasize that literature is capable of bringing new horizons and new perspectives – philosophical, religious, aesthetical and even social. In the history of old Jewish literature there was never any basic difference between the poet and the prophet. Our ancient poetry often became law and a way of life.

Some of my cronies in the cafeteria near the Jewish Daily Forward in New York call me a pessimist and a decadent, but there is always a background of faith behind resignation. I found comfort in such pessimists and decadents as Baudelaire, Verlaine, Edgar Allan Poe, and Strindberg. My interest in psychic research made me find solace in such mystics as your Swedenborg and in our own Rabbi Nachman Bratzlaver, as well as in a great poet of my time, my friend Aaron Zeitlin who died a few years ago and left a literary inheritance of high quality, most of it in Yiddish.

The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty passion for the redemption of man. While the poet entertains he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice. Strange as these words may sound I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet – whom Plato banned from his Republic – may rise up to save us all.

The high honor bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language – a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics a language that was despised by both gentiles and emancipated Jews. The truth is that what the great religions preached, the Yiddish-speaking people of the ghettos practiced day in and day out. They were the people of The Book in the truest sense of the word. They knew of no greater joy than the study of man and human relations, which they called Torah, Talmud, Mussar, Cabala. The ghetto was not only a place of refuge for a persecuted minority but a great experiment in peace, in self-discipline and in humanism. As such it still exists and refuses to give up in spite of all the brutality that surrounds it. I was brought up among those people. My father’s home on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw was a study house, a court of justice, a house of prayer, of storytelling, as well as a place for weddings and Chassidic banquets. As a child I had heard from my older brother and master, I. J. Singer, who later wrote The Brothers Ashkenazi, all the arguments that the rationalists from Spinoza to Max Nordau brought out against religion. I have heard from my father and mother all the answers that faith in God could offer to those who doubt and search for the truth. In our home and in many other homes the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper. In spite of all the disenchantments and all my skepticism I believe that the nations can learn much from those Jews, their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation. To me the Yiddish language and the conduct of those who spoke it are identical. One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amidst the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God’s plan for Creation is still at the very beginning.

There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for two thousand years. It has been revived in our time in a most remarkable, almost miraculous way. Aramaic was certainly a dead language for centuries but then it brought to light the Zohar, a work of mysticism of sublime value. It is a fact that the classics of Yiddish literature are also the classics of the modern Hebrew literature. Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists – rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993

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Literature in History

Nobel Prize

1948-11-04 American-born British poet T. S. Eliot wins Nobel Prize for literature

Nobel Prize

1950-11-10 Nobel for literature awarded to William Faulkner

Nobel Prize

1954-10-28 Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded to Ernest Hemingway

Nobel Prize

1957-10-17 French author Albert Camus awarded Nobel Prize in Literature

Nobel Prize

1958-10-23 Soviet novelist Boris Pasternak, wins Nobel Prize for Literature

Nobel Prize

1962-10-25 American author John Steinbeck awarded Nobel Prize for Literature

Nobel Prize

1970-10-08 Soviet author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wins the Nobel Prize for Literature

Nobel Prize

1971-10-21 Nobel prize for literature awarded to Pablo Neruda

Nobel Prize

1976-10-21 Nobel prize for literature awarded to American Saul Bellow

    Isaac Bashevis Singer wins the Nobel Prize for literature Nobel prize for literature awarded to Czesław Miłosz French author Claude Simon wins the Nobel Prize for Literature Nobel prize for literature awarded to Joseph Brodsky Naguib Mahfouz is the 1st Arabic writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature Mexican writer Octavio Paz is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature Nobel Prize for literature is given to West Indies poet Derek Walcott

Nobel Prize

1993-10-07 Nobel prize for literature awarded to American writer Toni Morrison


Alfred Nobel stipulated in his last will and testament that his money be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind" in physics, chemistry, peace, physiology or medicine, and literature. [8] [9] Though Nobel wrote several wills during his lifetime, the last was written a little over a year before he died, and signed at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris on 27 November 1895. [10] [11] Nobel bequeathed 94% of his total assets, 31 million Swedish kronor (US$198 million, €176 million in 2016), to establish and endow the five Nobel Prizes. [12] Due to the level of scepticism surrounding the will, it was not until 26 April 1897 that the Storting (Norwegian Parliament) approved it. [13] [14] The executors of his will were Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist, who formed the Nobel Foundation to take care of Nobel's fortune and organize the prizes.

The members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that were to award the Peace Prize were appointed shortly after the will was approved. The prize-awarding organisations followed: the Karolinska Institutet on 7 June, the Swedish Academy on 9 June, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on 11 June. [15] [16] The Nobel Foundation then reached an agreement on guidelines for how the Nobel Prize should be awarded. In 1900, the Nobel Foundation's newly created statutes were promulgated by King Oscar II. [14] [17] [18] According to Nobel's will, the prize in literature should be determined by "the Academy in Stockholm", which was specified by the statutes of the Nobel Foundation to mean the Swedish Academy. [19]

Each year, the Swedish Academy sends out requests for nominations of candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Members of the Academy, members of literature academies and societies, professors of literature and language, former Nobel literature laureates, and the presidents of writers' organizations are all allowed to nominate a candidate. It is not permitted to nominate oneself. [20]

Thousands of requests are sent out each year, and as of 2011 [update] about 220 proposals were returned. [21] These proposals must be received by the Academy by 1 February, after which they are examined by the Nobel Committee. By April, the Academy narrows the field to around twenty candidates. [21] By May, a short list of five names is approved by the Committee. [21] The next four months are spent in reading and reviewing the works of the five candidates. [21] In October, members of the Academy vote and the candidate who receives more than half of the votes is named the Nobel laureate in Literature. No one can get the prize without being on the list at least twice thus many authors reappear and are reviewed repeatedly over the years. [21] The academy is master [ clarification needed ] of thirteen languages, but when a candidate is shortlisted from an unknown [ clarification needed ] language, they call on translators and oath-sworn experts to provide samples of that writer. [21] Other elements of the process are similar to those of other Nobel Prizes. [22] The judges are composed of an 18 member committee who are elected for life, and until 2018 not technically permitted to leave. [23] On 2 May 2018, King Carl XVI Gustaf amended the rules of the academy and made it possible for members to resign. The new rules also state that a member who has been inactive in the work of the academy for more than two years can be asked to resign. [24] [25]

The award is usually announced in October. Sometimes, however, the award has been announced the year after the nominal year, the latest such case being the 2018 award. In the midst of controversy surrounding claims of sexual assault, conflict of interest, and resignations by officials, on 4 May 2018, the Swedish Academy announced that the 2018 laureate would be announced in 2019 along with the 2019 laureate. [6] [5]

A Literature Nobel Prize laureate earns a gold medal, a diploma bearing a citation, and a sum of money. [26] The amount of money awarded depends on the income of the Nobel Foundation that year. [27] If a prize is awarded to more than one laureate, the money is either split evenly among them or, for three laureates, it may be divided into a half and two quarters. [28] If a prize is awarded jointly to two or more laureates, the money is split among them. [28]

The prize money of the Nobel Prize has been fluctuating since its inauguration but as of 2012 [update] it stood at kr 8,000,000 (about US$1,100,000), previously it was kr 10,000,000. [29] [30] [31] This was not the first time the prize-amount was decreased—beginning with a nominal value of kr 150,782 in 1901 (worth 8,123,951 in 2011 SEK) the nominal value has been as low as kr 121,333 (2,370,660 in 2011 SEK) in 1945—but it has been uphill or stable since then, peaking at an SEK-2011 value of 11,659,016 in 2001. [31]

The laureate is also invited to give a lecture during "Nobel Week" in Stockholm the highlight is the prize-giving ceremony and banquet on 10 December. [32] It is the second richest literary prize in the world.

Medals Edit

The Nobel Prize medals, minted by Myntverket [33] in Sweden and the Mint of Norway since 1902, are registered trademarks of the Nobel Foundation. Each medal features an image of Alfred Nobel in left profile on the obverse (front side of the medal). The Nobel Prize medals for Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature have identical obverses, showing the image of Alfred Nobel and the years of his birth and death (1833–1896). Nobel's portrait also appears on the obverse of the Nobel Peace Prize medal and the Medal for the Prize in Economics, but with a slightly different design. [34] The image on the reverse of a medal varies according to the institution awarding the prize. The reverse sides of the Nobel Prize medals for Chemistry and Physics share the same design. [35] The medal for the Nobel Prize in Literature was designed by Erik Lindberg. [36]

Diplomas Edit

Nobel laureates receive a Diploma directly from the King of Sweden. Each Diploma is uniquely designed by the prize-awarding institutions for the laureate who receives it. [37] The Diploma contains a picture and text that states the name of the laureate and normally a citation of why they received the prize. [37]

The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded 113 times between 1901 and 2020 to 117 individuals: 101 men and 16 women. The prize has been shared between two individuals on four occasions. It was not awarded on seven occasions. The laureates have included writers in 25 different languages. The youngest laureate was Rudyard Kipling, who was 41 years old when he was awarded in 1907. The oldest laureate to receive the prize was Doris Lessing, who was 88 when she was awarded in 2007. It has been awarded posthumously once, to Erik Axel Karlfeldt in 1931. Two writers have declined the prize, Boris Pasternak in 1958 ("Accepted first, later caused by the authorities of his country (Soviet Union) to decline the Prize", according to the Nobel Foundation) and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964. [38]

Interpretations of Nobel's guidelines Edit

Alfred Nobel's guidelines for the prize that the candidate should have bestowed "the greatest benefit on mankind", and writing "in an idealistic direction" have caused much discussion. In the early history of the prize Nobel's "idealism" was read as "a lofty and sound idealism". The set of criteria, characterized by its conservative idealism, holding church, state and family sacred, resulted in prizes to Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Rudyard Kipling and Paul Heyse. During World War I there was a policy of neutrality, which partly explains the number of awards to Scandinavian writers. In the 1920s "idealistic direction" was interpreted more generously as "wide-hearted humanity", and writers like Anatole France, George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Mann were awarded. In the 1930s "the greatest benefit on mankind" was interpreted as writers within everybody’s reach, with authors like Sinclair Lewis and Pearl Buck being awarded. From 1946 a renewed Academy changed focus and began to award literary pioneers like Hermann Hesse, André Gide, T. S. Eliot and William Faulkner. From this era, "the greatest benefit on mankind" was interpreted in a more exclusive and generous way than before. Since the 1970s the Academy has often given attention to important but internationally unnoticed writers, awarding writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Odysseus Elytis, Elias Canetti, and Jaroslav Seifert.

From 1986 the Academy acknowledged the international horizon in Nobel's will, which rejected any consideration for the nationality of the candidates, and awarded authors from all over the world such as Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, Naguib Mahfouz from Egypt, Octavio Paz from Mexico, Nadine Gordimer from South Africa, Derek Walcott from St. Lucia, Toni Morrison, the first African-American on the list, Kenzaburo Oe from Japan, and Gao Xingjian, the first laureate to write in Chinese. [19] In the 2000s V. S. Naipaul, Mario Vargas Llosa and the Chinese writer Mo Yan have been awarded, but the policy of "a prize for the whole world" has been less noticeable as the Academy has mostly awarded European and English-language writers from the Western literary tradition. In 2015 a rare prize to a non-fiction writer was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich. [39]

Shared prize Edit

The Nobel Prize in Literature can be shared between two individuals. However, the Academy has been reluctant to award shared prizes, mainly because divisions are liable to be interpreted as a result of a compromise. The shared prizes awarded to Frederic Mistral and José Echegaray in 1904 and to Karl Gjellerup and Henrik Pontoppidan in 1917 were in fact both a result of compromises. The Academy has also hesitated to divide the prize between two authors as a shared prize runs the risk of being regarded as only half a laurel. Shared prizes are exceptional, and more recently the Academy has awarded a shared prize on only two occasions, to Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Nelly Sachs in 1966, and to Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson in 1974. [19]

Recognition of a specific work Edit

Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature are awarded for the author's life work, but on some occasions the Academy have singled out a specific work for particular recognition. For example Knut Hamsun was awarded in 1920 "for his monumental work, Growth of the Soil", Thomas Mann in 1929 "principally for his great novel, Buddenbrooks, which has won steadily increased recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature", John Galsworthy in 1932 "for his distinguished art of narration which takes its highest form in The Forsyte Saga", Roger Martin du Gard in 1937 “for the artistic power and truth with which he has depicted human conflict as well as some fundamental aspects of contemporary life in his novel-cycle Les Thibault," Ernest Hemingway in 1954 "for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style", and Mikhail Sholokhov in 1965 "for the artistic power and integrity with which, in his epic of the Don, he has given expression to a historic phase in the life of the Russian people". [38]

Potential candidates Edit

Nominations are kept secret for fifty years until they are publicly available at The Nomination Database for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Currently, only nominations submitted between 1901 and 1966 are available for public viewing. [40]

What about the rumours circling around the world about certain people being nominated for the Nobel Prize this year? - Well, either it's just a rumour, or someone among the invited nominators has leaked information. Since the nominations are kept secret for 50 years, you'll have to wait until then to find out. [41]

Although the Nobel Prize in Literature has become the world's most prestigious literature prize, [42] the Swedish Academy has attracted significant criticism for its handling of the award. Many authors who have won the prize have fallen into obscurity, while others rejected by the jury remain widely studied and read. The prize has "become widely seen as a political one – a peace prize in literary disguise", whose judges are prejudiced against authors with political tastes different from theirs. [43] Tim Parks has expressed skepticism that it is possible for "Swedish professors . [to] compar[e] a poet from Indonesia, perhaps translated into English with a novelist from Cameroon, perhaps available only in French, and another who writes in Afrikaans but is published in German and Dutch. ". [44] As of 2016, 16 of the 113 recipients have been of Scandinavian origin. The Academy has often been alleged to be biased towards European, and in particular Swedish, authors. [45]

Nobel's "vague" wording for the criteria for the prize has led to recurrent controversy. In the original Swedish, the word idealisk translates as "ideal". [4] [46] The Nobel Committee's interpretation has varied over the years. In recent years, this means a kind of idealism championing human rights on a broad scale. [4] [47]

Controversies about Nobel Laureate selections Edit

From 1901 to 1912, the committee, headed by the conservative Carl David af Wirsén, weighed the literary quality of a work against its contribution towards humanity's struggle 'toward the ideal'. Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola, and Mark Twain were rejected in favor of authors little read today. [46] [48]

The first prize in 1901, awarded to the French poet Sully Prudhomme, was heavily criticised. Many believed that the acclaimed Russian author Tolstoy should have been awarded the first Nobel prize in literature. [49]

The choice of philosopher Rudolf Eucken as Nobel Laureate in 1908 is widely considered to be one of the worst mistakes in the history of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The main candidates for the prize this year were poet Algernon Swinburne and author Selma Lagerlöf, but the Academy were divided between the candidates and, as a compromise, Eucken, representative of the Academy's interpretation of Nobel's "ideal direction", was launched as an alternative candidate that could be agreed upon. [50]

The choice of Selma Lagerlöf (Sweden 1858–1940) as Nobel Laureate in 1909 (for the 'lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterizes her writings' [51] ) followed fierce debate because of her writing style and subject matter, which broke literary decorums of the time. [52] [53]

During World War I and its immediate aftermath, the committee adopted a policy of neutrality, favouring writers from non-combatant countries. [46] The pacifistic author Romain Rolland was awarded the prize for 1915. Other years during the war Scandinavian writers were favoured, or the award was postponed. [54]

In 1931 the prize was awarded posthumously to the poet and former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Erik Axel Karlfeldt, who had died earlier that year. The prize was controversial not just because it was the first and only time the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded posthumously, but because the Academy had previously awarded two other Swedish writers of the same literary era, Selma Lagerlöf in 1909 and Verner von Heidenstam in 1916. Internationally it was heavily criticised as few had heard of Karlfeldt. [55]

The Nobel Prize awarded to Pearl Buck in 1938 is one of the most criticised in the history of the prize. The Academy awarded Buck "for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces", referring to acclaimed and popular books published only a few years earlier. But her later work is generally not considered to be of the literary standard of a Nobel Laureate. [56]

John Steinbeck received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. The selection was heavily criticised, and described as "one of the Academy's biggest mistakes" in one Swedish newspaper. [57] The New York Times asked why the Nobel committee gave the award to an author whose "limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophising", adding, "we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer . whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age". [57]

In 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he wrote declining it, stating that "It is not the same thing if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre or if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize laureate. A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form." [58] Nevertheless he was awarded the prize. [59]

Soviet dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the 1970 prize laureate, did not attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm for fear that the USSR would prevent his return afterwards (his works there were circulated in samizdat—clandestine form). [60] After the Swedish government refused to honor Solzhenitsyn with a public award ceremony and lecture at its Moscow embassy, Solzhenitsyn refused the award altogether, commenting that the conditions set by the Swedes (who preferred a private ceremony) were "an insult to the Nobel Prize itself." Solzhenitsyn did not accept the award and prize money until 10 December 1974, after he was deported from the Soviet Union. [61] Within the Swedish Academy, member Artur Lundkvist had argued that the Nobel Prize in Literature should not become a political prize and questioned the artistic value of Solzhenitsyn's work. [62]

In 1974, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow were believed to be likely candidates for the prize but the Academy decided on a joint award for Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, both members of the Swedish Academy at the time, [63] and unknown outside their home country. [64] [65] Bellow received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976 neither Greene nor Nabokov was awarded it. [66]

The award to Italian performance artist Dario Fo in 1997 was initially considered "rather lightweight" [67] by some critics, as he was seen primarily as a performer, and Catholic organizations saw the award to Fo as controversial as he had previously been censured by the Roman Catholic Church. [68] The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano expressed surprise at Fo's selection for the prize commenting that "Giving the prize to someone who is also the author of questionable works is beyond all imagination." [69] Salman Rushdie and Arthur Miller had been strongly favoured to receive the prize, but the Nobel organisers were later quoted as saying that they would have been "too predictable, too popular." [70]

Camilo José Cela willingly offered his services as an informer for Franco's regime and had moved voluntarily from Madrid to Galicia during the Spanish Civil War in order to join the rebel forces there an article by Miguel Angel Villena, Between Fear and Impunity which compiled commentaries by Spanish novelists on the noteworthy silence of the older generation of Spanish novelists on the Francoist pasts of public intellectuals, appeared below a photograph of Cela during the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm in 1989. [71]

The choice of the 2004 laureate, Elfriede Jelinek, was protested by a member of the Swedish Academy, Knut Ahnlund, who had not played an active role in the Academy since 1996 Ahnlund resigned, alleging that selecting Jelinek had caused "irreparable damage" to the reputation of the award. [72] [73]

The selection of Harold Pinter for the prize in 2005 was delayed for a couple of days, apparently due to Ahnlund's resignation, and led to renewed speculations about there being a "political element" in the Swedish Academy's awarding of the prize. [47] Although Pinter was unable to give his Nobel Lecture in person because of ill health, he delivered it from a television studio on video projected on screens to an audience at the Swedish Academy, in Stockholm. His comments have been the source of much commentary and debate. The issue of their "political stance" was also raised in response to the awards of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Orhan Pamuk and Doris Lessing in 2006 and 2007, respectively. [74]

In recent years, the choices of Bob Dylan for the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature and Peter Handke for the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature have been heavily criticised. [75] [76]

Nationality-based criticism Edit

The prize's focus on European men, and Swedes in particular, has been the subject of criticism, even from Swedish newspapers. [77] The majority of laureates have been European, with Sweden itself receiving more prizes (8) than all of Asia (7, if Turkish Orhan Pamuk is included), as well as all of Latin America (7, if Saint Lucian Derek Walcott is included). In 2009, Horace Engdahl, then the permanent secretary of the Academy, declared that "Europe still is the centre of the literary world" and that "the US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature." [78]

In 2009, Engdahl's replacement, Peter Englund, rejected this sentiment ("In most language areas . there are authors that really deserve and could get the Nobel Prize and that goes for the United States and the Americas, as well") and acknowledged the Eurocentric nature of the award, saying that, "I think that is a problem. We tend to relate more easily to literature written in Europe and in the European tradition." [79] American critics are known to object that those from their own country, like Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy, have been overlooked, as have Latin Americans such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes, while in their place Europeans lesser-known to that continent have triumphed. The 2009 award to Herta Müller, previously little-known outside Germany but many times named favorite for the Nobel Prize, re-ignited the viewpoint that the Swedish Academy was biased and Eurocentric. [80]

The 2010 prize was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa, a native of Peru in South America, a generally well-regarded decision. When the 2011 prize was awarded to the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Peter Englund said the prize was not decided based on politics, describing such a notion as "literature for dummies". [81] The Swedish Academy awarded the next two prizes to non-Europeans, Chinese author Mo Yan and Canadian short story writer Alice Munro. French writer Patrick Modiano's win in 2014 renewed questions of Eurocentrism when asked by The Wall Street Journal "So no American this year, yet again. Why is that?", Englund reminded Americans of the Canadian origins of the previous year's recipient, the Academy's desire for literary quality and the impossibility of rewarding everyone who deserves the prize. [82]

Overlooked literary achievements Edit

In the history of the Nobel Prize in Literature, many literary achievements were overlooked. The literary historian Kjell Espmark admitted that "as to the early prizes, the censure of bad choices and blatant omissions is often justified. Tolstoy, Ibsen, and Henry James should have been rewarded instead of, for instance, Sully Prudhomme, Eucken, and Heyse". [83] There are omissions which are beyond the control of the Nobel Committee such as the early death of an author as was the case with Marcel Proust, Italo Calvino, and Roberto Bolaño. According to Kjell Espmark "the main works of Kafka, Cavafy, and Pessoa were not published until after their deaths and the true dimensions of Mandelstam's poetry were revealed above all in the unpublished poems that his wife saved from extinction and gave to the world long after he had perished in his Siberian exile". [83] British novelist Tim Parks ascribed the never-ending controversy surrounding the decisions of the Nobel Committee to the "essential silliness of the prize and our own foolishness at taking it seriously" [84] and noted that "eighteen (or sixteen) Swedish nationals will have a certain credibility when weighing up works of Swedish literature, but what group could ever really get its mind round the infinitely varied work of scores of different traditions. And why should we ask them to do that?" [84]

Although several Scandinavians were awarded, two of the most celebrated writers, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and Swedish author August Strindberg were repeatedly bypassed by the committee, but Strindberg holds the singular distinction of being awarded an Anti-Nobel Prize, conferred by popular acclaim and national subscription and presented to him in 1912 by future prime minister Hjalmar Branting. [85] [86] [87]

Paul Valéry was nominated twelve times between 1930 and 1945, but died just as the Academy intended to award him the prize in 1945. [88] [89]

James Joyce wrote the books that rank 1st and 3rd on the Modern Library 100 Best Novels – Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – but Joyce was never nominated for the prize. Kjell Espmark, member of the Nobel Prize committee and author of the history of the prize, claimed that Joyce's "stature was not properly recognized even in the English-speaking world", but that Joyce doubtless would have been awarded if he had lived in the late 1940s when the Academy began to award literary pioneers like T. S. Eliot. [90]

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was nominated for the prize several times but the Academy did not award it to him, though he was among the final candidates some years in the 1960s. [91]

Graham Greene was nominated for the prize twenty times between the years 1950 and 1966. [92] Greene was a celebrated candidate to be awarded the prize in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Academy was criticised for passing him over. [19]

French novelist and intellectual André Malraux was seriously considered for the prize in the 1950s. Malraux was competing with Albert Camus but was rejected several times, especially in 1954 and 1955, "so long as he does not come back to novel". Thus, Camus was awarded the prize in 1957. [93] Malraux was again considered in 1969 when he was competing with Samuel Beckett for the prize. Some members of the Nobel committee supported a prize to Malraux, but Beckett was awarded. [94]

W. H. Auden was nominated to the Nobel Prize in Literature ten times in the 1960s [95] and was among the final candidates for the prize several times, but the Academy favoured other writers. In 1964 Auden and Jean-Paul Sartre were the leading candidates, and the Academy favoured Sartre as Auden's best work was thought "too far back in time". In 1967 Auden was one of three final candidates along with Graham Greene and the awarded Guatemalan author Miguel Ángel Asturias. [96] [97]

Controversies about Swedish Academy board members Edit

Membership in the 18-member academy, who select the recipients, is technically for life. [23] Until 2018 members were not allowed to leave, although they might refuse to participate. [23] For members who did not participate their board seat was left vacant until they died. [98] Twelve active/participating members are required for a quorum. [98]

In 1989, three members, including the former permanent secretary Lars Gyllensten, resigned in protest after the academy refused to denounce Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. [23] A fourth member, Knut Ahnlund, decided to remain in the academy, but later refused to participate in their work and resigned in 2005 in protest to the Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to Elfriede Jelinek. According to Ahnlund the decision to award Jelinek ruined the worth of the Nobel Prize in Literature for a long time. [99] [100]

2018 controversy and award cancellation Edit

In April 2018, three members of the academy board resigned in response to a sexual-misconduct investigation involving author Jean-Claude Arnault, who is married to board member Katarina Frostenson. [98] Arnault was accused by at least 18 women of sexual assault and harassment. He and his wife were also accused of leaking the names of prize recipients on at least seven occasions so friends could profit from bets. [101] [98] He denied all accusations, although he was later convicted of rape and sentenced to two years and six months in prison. [102] [103] [104] The three members resigned in protest over the decision by Sara Danius, the board secretary, not to take what they felt was appropriate legal action against Arnault. [98] [23] [105] Two former permanent secretaries, Sture Allén and Horace Engdahl, called Danius a weak leader. [98]

On 10 April, Danius was asked to resign from her position by the Academy, bringing the number of empty seats to four. [106] Although the Academy voted against removing Katarina Frostenson from the committee, [107] she voluntarily agreed to withdraw from participating in the academy, bringing the total of withdrawals to five. Because two other seats were still vacant from the Rushdie affair, this left only 11 active members, one short of the quorum needed to vote in replacements. On 4 May 2018, the Swedish Academy announced that the selection would be postponed until 2019, when two laureates would be chosen. It was still technically possible to choose a 2018 laureate, as only eight active members are required to choose a recipient. However, there were concerns that the academy was not in any condition to credibly present the award. [5] [6] [7] [108] The New Academy Prize in Literature was created as an alternative award for 2018 only. [109]

The scandal was widely seen as damaging to the credibility of the prize and its authority. "With this scandal you cannot possibly say that this group of people has any kind of solid judgment," noted Swedish journalist Björn Wiman. [98] As noted by Andrew Brown in The Guardian in a lengthy deconstruction of the scandal:

"The scandal has elements of a tragedy, in which people who set out to serve literature and culture discovered they were only pandering to writers and the people who hang around with them. The pursuit of excellence in art was entangled with the pursuit of social prestige. The academy behaved as if the meals in its clubhouse were as much an accomplishment as the work that got people elected there." [110]

King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden said a reform of the rules may be evaluated, including the introduction of the right to resign in respect of the current lifelong membership of the committee. [111] On 5 March 2019, it was announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature would once again be awarded, and laureates for both 2018 and 2019 would be announced together. The decision came after several changes were made to the structure of the Swedish Academy as well as to the Nobel Committee members selection, in order to "[restore] trust in the Academy as a prize-awarding institution". [112]

The Nobel Prize in Literature is not the only literary prize for which all nationalities are eligible. Other notable international literary prizes include the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Franz Kafka Prize, the International Booker Prize when it was previously awarded for a writer's entire body of work, and in the 1960s the Formentor Prix International. In contrast to the other prizes mentioned, the Neustadt International Prize is awarded biennially. The journalist Hephzibah Anderson has noted that the International Booker Prize "is fast becoming the more significant award, appearing an ever more competent alternative to the Nobel". [113] However since 2016 the International Booker Prize now awards an annual book of fiction translated into English. [114] Previous winners of the International Booker Prize who have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature include Alice Munro and Olga Tokarczuk. The Neustadt International Prize for Literature is regarded as one of the most prestigious international literary prizes, often referred to as the American equivalent to the Nobel Prize. [115] [116] Like the Nobel Prize, it is awarded not for any one work, but for an entire body of work. It is frequently seen as an indicator of who may be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Gabriel García Márquez (1972 Neustadt, 1982 Nobel), Czesław Miłosz (1978 Neustadt, 1980 Nobel), Octavio Paz (1982 Neustadt, 1990 Nobel), Tomas Tranströmer (1990 Neustadt, 2011 Nobel) were first awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature before being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Another award of note is the Spanish Princess of Asturias Award (formerly Prince of Asturias Award) in Letters. During the first years of its existence it was almost exclusively awarded to writers in the Spanish language, but in more recent times writers in other languages have been awarded as well. Writers who have won both the Asturias Award in Letters and the Nobel Prize in Literature include Camilo José Cela, Günter Grass, Doris Lessing and Mario Vargas Llosa.

The America Award in Literature, which does not include a monetary prize, presents itself as an alternative to the Nobel Prize in Literature. To date, Harold Pinter, José Saramago, and Peter Handke are the only writers to have received both the America Award and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

There are also prizes for honouring the lifetime achievement of writers in specific languages, like the Miguel de Cervantes Prize (for Spanish language, established in 1976) and the Camões Prize (for Portuguese language, established in 1989). Nobel laureates who were also awarded the Miguel de Cervantes Prize include Octavio Paz (1981 Cervantes, 1990 Nobel) Mario Vargas Llosa (1994 Cervantes, 2010 Nobel) and Camilo José Cela (1995 Cervantes, 1989 Nobel). José Saramago is the only author to receive both the Camões Prize (1995) and the Nobel Prize (1998) to date.

The Hans Christian Andersen Award is sometimes referred to as "the Little Nobel". The award has earned this appellation since, in a similar manner to the Nobel Prize in Literature, it recognizes the lifetime achievement of writers, though the Andersen Award focuses on a single category of literary works (children's literature). [117]

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After Nobel's death, the Nobel Foundation was set up to carry out the provisions of his will and to administer his funds. In his will, he had stipulated that four different institutions—three Swedish and one Norwegian—should award the prizes. From Stockholm, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences confers the prizes for physics, chemistry, and economics, the Karolinska Institute confers the prize for physiology or medicine, and the Swedish Academy confers the prize for literature. The Norwegian Nobel Committee based in Oslo confers the prize for peace. The Nobel Foundation is the legal owner and functional administrator of the funds and serves as the joint administrative body of the prize-awarding institutions, but it is not concerned with the prize deliberations or decisions, which rest exclusively with the four institutions.

Each Nobel Prize consists of a gold medal, a diploma bearing a citation, and a sum of money, the amount of which depends on the income of the Nobel Foundation. (A sum of $1,300,000 accompanied each prize in 2005.) A Nobel Prize is either given entirely to one person, divided equally between two persons, or shared by three persons. In the latter case, each of the three persons can receive a one-third share of the prize or two together can receive a one-half share.

The documentary [2] Isaac in America: A Journey With Isaac Bashevis Singer is a characterization of the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. It was filmed only a few years before he died, and depicts the author looking back on his professional and life experiences. Singer is best known for his Yiddish stories, which have a universal appeal. He went on to win a Nobel Prize in literature.

From the documentary the viewer is able to see that Singer's personality matches his unconventional and unique written works. His office is filled with diplomas and awards, but Singer is well aware that the events of his life could have turned out in a very different manner. Born in 1902 in a small, Yiddish-speaking town not far from Warsaw, he escaped Nazi occupation by fleeing to the United States of America and settling in New York City. There is a possibility that he could have starved if the Yiddish newspaper The Jewish Daily The Forward had not acknowledged the promising writer's talent and printed his stories frequently. Isaac in America focuses on the Nobel Prize winner during the final years of his existence.

Singer spent the majority of his life in America, yet he and his work were strongly affected by his birthplace. Despite venturing off to different locations, his work and experiences were measured against the backdrop of his hometown. The people Singer associated with and desired to write about were entirely Old World Yiddish speakers, people filled with fear and inquisitiveness about the supernatural. As Singer discusses in the film, he could not have written about Texan cowboys because he had no knowledge how they operated or their vernacular. Saul Bellow and many other contemporary Jewish writers saw themselves as American writers who happened to be Jewish, conversely Singer viewed himself as a Jewish writer — one whose roots were demolished by the Holocaust, but could live on forever through his writings. Isaac in America provides the observer an additional layer of admiration to Singer's writing by exploring its memoir-like themes and displaying the writer's personal understanding of his pieces. The story “A Day at Coney Island,” for example, was crafted upon Singer's first summer in America.

Singer reads excerpts from the above-mentioned short story and goes into details about it, he even shares self-effacing anecdotes and very intimate memories. The author goes so far as to revisit the characters and places that appeared in the work many years ago Singer is both surprised and saddened by how they have been changed by time. The viewer is offered a rare glimpse of Singer in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan his office is so full of books and documents that there is barely any space to move about. However, Singer is not bothered by the disarray. “Chaos is not really ugly,” he explains, “The chaos was before the world was created. Before God said, 'Let there be light,' there was chaos.” And because of this logic, he sees no reasoning in tidying up the clutter.

The documentary takes a strict approach when Singer discusses his writing, making him a valuable asset for up-and-coming writers. The author is also filmed in a classroom, where he lectures to pupils on the value of having a beginning, middle and end to a story and of maintaining a clear plot and comprehensible language, because “there's no great art in confusing the reader.” As Singer goes on to talk about his profession, the more he reveals about himself. He asserts that all good stories are love stories because it is in love that a person becomes exposed and shows their true self. “No where is the human being, character, personality expressed so clearly as in love,” he says. With that he appears to reveal what becomes apparent from studying him: the writer's fondness for words are equaled only by his adoration for women.

The film premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1986. It also played festivals at Sundance Film Festival, in Berlin, and at the Visions du Réel documentary film festival, Nyon, Switzerland - where it won Best Film. The film was also nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary Feature. It was later broadcast on the PBS series American Masters. [ citation needed ]

The Ghost Shtetl of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Youth

In his 1978 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Isaac Bashevis Singer employed memories from his earliest years as a source of hope for coping with the troubles of modern times:

“In our home and in many other homes the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper. In spite of all the disenchantments and all my skepticism I believe that the nations can learn much from those Jews, their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation.”

As a teenager, in the midst of the First World War, Singer moved with his siblings and his mother to her hometown, the small shtetl of Biłgoraj, where they belonged to a prominent rabbinical family. The main square in Biłgoraj around the time Singer lived there

Following a short stint in a Warsaw rabbinical seminary, a young Singer would return to the ancestral shtetl, where he would fail to support himself by giving Hebrew lessons – an interesting historical detail for the man destined become the first Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize.

Biłgoraj was home to a thriving, if modest, Jewish community, and would inspire many of Singer’s later works. A rabbinic text printed in Biłgoraj, 1912. From the National Library of Israel collection

Nearly a century has passed since Singer left Biłgoraj for good. Other notable former residents included Rabbi Mordecai Rokeach of the Belz Hasidic Dynasty, who famously fled Europe for the Land of Israel in 1944, and the well-known writer and educator Shmuel Ben-Artzi, father-in-law of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The town has long been bereft of Jewish inhabitants, yet a replica shtetl now stands there, the brainchild of Tadeusz Kuźmiński, a businessman and philanthropist, who recently passed away. Tadeusz Kuźmiński stands in front of the replica synagogue in Biłgoraj, 2016 (Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Kuźmiński dreamed of building a site that reflected the multicultural nature of pre-War Poland, which could also serve as a contemporary cultural, commercial and residential center. With the vision only partially realized, Biłgoraj is now home to a recreated Jewish marketplace, with plans ready for a second market square set to include replicas of wooden churches and a wooden mosque (of the type long-used by some descendants of Tatars in eastern Poland). The new square in Biłgoraj, 2016 (Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber)

A small museum in Singer’s honor is housed in one of the replica town’s structures, yet the most striking feature of the modern reincarnation of Jewish Biłgoraj is Kuźmiński’s full-scale reproduction of the destroyed wooden synagogue of Wolpa (a town in modern-day Belarus) – some 400 km (250 miles) away. Postcard featuring a ca. 1930 photo of the Wolpa Synagogue (Publisher: Tomy). From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem available via the NLI Digital Collection Prayer for the czar inside the Wolpa Synagogue (Photo: Alois Breyer). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Somewhat ironically, Wolpa was probably most well-known for the very synagogue now recreated in Biłgoraj.

Wood synagogues were quite common throughout Eastern Europe, and yet the Wolpa Synagogue was considered to be one of the finest examples, an aesthetic and technical masterpiece, which stood for well over two centuries – surviving one world war before being destroyed in the next. Interior photo of the Wolpa Synagogue’s dome, ca. 1910-1913 (Photo: Alois Breyer). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After receiving his Nobel Prize, Singer addressed the distinguished guests at the subsequent banquet:

“People ask me often, ‘Why do you write in a dying language?’ And I want to explain it in a few words.

Firstly, I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. The deader the language the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish and as far as I know, they all speak it.

Secondly, not only do I believe in ghosts, but also in resurrection. I am sure that millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be: “Is there any new Yiddish book to read?” For them Yiddish will not be dead.

Thirdly, for 2000 years Hebrew was considered a dead language. Suddenly it became strangely alive. What happened to Hebrew may also happen to Yiddish one day, (although I haven’t the slightest idea how this miracle can take place).

There is still a fourth minor reason for not forsaking Yiddish and this is: Yiddish may be a dying language but it is the only language I know well. Yiddish is my mother language and a mother is never really dead.”

Isaac Bashevis Singer preparing his speech before the official Nobel Prize ceremony, 1978 (Photo: Israel Zamir). From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Isaac Bashevis Singer passed away some two decades before Tadeusz Kuźmiński’s dream of a simulated pre-War Biłgoraj began to take shape.

What would Singer have thought or written about Kuźmiński’s renascent Biłgoraj?

Would he have seen humor in the idea of a replica shtetl with no Jews?

Or the notion of a once-iconic synagogue transported through space and time, plopped down in tiny Biłgoraj, steps away from a modest museum in his honor (despite the fact that he himself only lived there for a brief period)?

Is Kuźmiński’s Biłgoraj a living ghost? A mother that was never really dead?

Or – in the spirit of Singer’s childhood home – an attempt in post-Holocaust Poland to “find… happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation”?

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.


Simon Weber, editor of the Forward, said that Singer told him that he never wrote for prizes. “I am not forgetting for one moment that writers in previous times did not write for prizes but this did not diminish their greatness,” Weber said Singer had told him.

Singer, Weber added, said he would always remember that he owes everything to the Forward because it was there that his writings first appeared. Weber told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that for him the Nobel award to Singer was “the proudest moment for the Forward and for myself. It is the greatest thing to have happened to Yiddish literature. It is the first time a man won the Nobel award who is known mostly in translation.”

Weber said the award would give “a tremendous boost” to Yiddish literature. He said he had been receiving calls all morning, following the announcement of the award, from readers wanting to know where they could get Singer’s work in Yiddish. Morris U. Schappes, historian and editor of Jewish Currents, said “it is high time that a Yiddish writer was recognized with a Nobel award.”

Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012)

On the surface Wislawa Szymborska’s writing seems much simpler than Milosz’s. Her sensitive yet poised observations are brought to life by uncomplicated language and a lyricism that speaks to all readers. But this is the crux of her oeuvre.With simple expression, she suffuses words with the virtue of metaphor, figurative depth and allusions to the instability of the human condition.

In the early 1950s, Szymborska was seduced by the promises of Poland’s flourishing Stalinism and her verses briefly fell into the propaganda-led bucket of socialist realism. But the poet soon returned to her own fiercely independent insight. Her fresh humour and wit, lyrical storytelling and ambiguity, irony and wordplay, define the tone of such masterpieces as Nic dwa razy (Nothing Twice), Kot w pustym mieszkaniu (Cat in an Empty Apartment) or O śmierci pez przesady (On Death, without Exaggeration). Although she remained modest and discreet as a person, the voices of her poems still call out with strength and conviction.

Szymborska’s legacy was honored by a period of national mourning in Poland upon her death in February 2012.

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