Arts & Culture

The Nobel for literature: An insider’s view

4 min read

Per Wästberg talks about the art and politics of the globe’s most coveted prize

One of Per Wästberg’s best times as a college student in the 1950s was the night he got locked in Widener Library.

“I got so enthralled [in the stacks], the library closed and I couldn’t get out,” Wästberg said with a laugh, noting that the floor of the library was nicer than his room at Adams House.

The chairman of the Nobel Prize for literature said he spent most of his free time as an undergraduate in the library’s famed labyrinths, reveling in the works and inspired by the “exciting titles on the spines of books that nobody ever opened.”

He called it his “spiritual home.”

In addition to enjoying Widener, Wästberg ’55, who received his degree in comparative literature, said rubbing elbows with the likes of Isaiah Berlin, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Henry Kissinger, and John Updike while at Harvard gave him some of “the best years of my life.”

Wästberg addressed a crowd of freshmen in Boylston Hall’s Fong Auditorium Oct. 23 as part of a discussion organized by the Harvard Foundation and the Freshmen Dean’s Office. Two freshmen, Danielle Aykroyd and Kenneth Chenault, served as student moderators for the “Freshman Conversation.”

Introduced to the audience by foundation Director S. Allen Counter, Wästberg engaged in a conversation with members of the Class of 2012 about his time at Harvard, his work on the committee, and his humanitarian efforts. In addition to a career as a writer and editor, and his Nobel committee involvement, Wästberg has been a champion for human rights and he founded the Swedish division of Amnesty International.

Much of the discussion was given over to the literature prize. Students queried Wästberg on all aspects of the award, from how winners are chosen, to the prize’s political overtones, to how winners react.

Jean-Paul Sartre refused the award outright but called back asking for the money (he didn’t get it). South African author J.M. Coetzee’s initial sleepy reaction was “No, no, no!” Later, when more awake, he accepted the prize, said Wästberg.

To select a winner, the committee narrows the field from a pool of approximately 250 names to a final group of five. Committee members then spend months reviewing the finalists’ work and write essays on each candidate. And while the prize is never awarded with a political intent, asserted Wästberg, often it becomes political because of the reaction it generates.

“It was nice to hear his perspective on things,” said Tengbo Li ’12, a chemistry major who asked Wästberg about the controversial comments of the committee’s permanent secretary Horace Engdahl. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Engdahl claimed Europe is the center of the literary world and that the United States doesn’t “participate in the big dialogue of literature.”

“Where I think he was right,” said Wästberg, “was to say that … America does not translate [enough foreign literature] and give the American public the experience of reading some wonderful writers from Romania, Poland, Greece, Finland, Sweden, Belgium, whatever.”

But he was quick to add that he disagreed with Engdahl’s assertion that the United States is “outside the dynamic dialogue of the European countries when it comes to literature. I regret to say that I think he shouldn’t have said it; I don’t think it’s quite true.”

Near the end of the discussion, Wästberg encouraged the young crowd to continue to foster their own imaginations by reading and studying literature.

“I think literature for everyone who has that real hunger of opening up worlds of imagination is the best way because … you create your own images, contrary to when you look at television or moving pictures, which lock you into pictures themselves and prevent you, I think, from having your own interior movie.”