War of the Words: The Intrigues Behind Israel's First Nobel Prize Win

In 1966 S.Y. Agnon won the prestigious award, beating other renowned writers such as Graham Greene, Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller. Fifty years on, the Swedish archive discloses what went on behind the scenes of his momentous win.

Nelly Sachs fixing S.Y. Agnon's bow tie at the Nobel Prize Awards Ceremony in December 1966.
AP

STOCKHOLM – According to the regulations of the Swedish Academy, which is responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize in literature, there is complete confidentiality on all Nobel documents for a period of 50 years, and then this secrecy is lifted. And so, on January 2, 2017, at exactly 2 P.M., I arrived – by appointment – at the Swedish Academy building in the heart of the capital’s Old Town district.

Together with translator Helena Isaksson, I was ushered into the spacious reading room adjacent to the academy’s Nobel Library. The ceiling above the top-story room is capped by a glass dome, allowing a little of the light that’s given so sparingly to the city at this time of year to penetrate.

After a few moments, the academy’s archivist, Madeleine Engström Broberg, entered the room, holding a handful of documents prepared for me in advance. Even though these were not the originals but only copies, I still held my breath: Some 50 years after awarding the literature prize to S.Y. Agnon, a few pages were exposed that could illuminate what took place in the closed, secretive rooms of the Swedish Academy when Agnon won – an event that shocked Israel’s institutions at the time because it was the first (and remains the only) time a Hebrew writer won the prize, and the first ever Nobel Prize for the young country.

The Swedish Academy building in Stockholm
Dan Lundberg

As an aside, I should note that the expectation of Agnon being awarded the prize had existed for decades – the issue was first raised in the Hebrew press in 1934, following the publication of an English translation of his acclaimed novel “The Bridal Canopy.” But regular lobbying to advance Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s claims to the prize began in earnest after the end of World War II, and continued until it yielded success.

The institutions promoting Agnon were the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Schocken Publishing House and, eventually, the Foreign Ministry. And the leading individuals involved were Gershom Schocken, Prof. Hugo Bergmann, Simon Halkin, Baruch Kurzweil, the various Israeli ambassadors in Stockholm (Avraham Nissan, Haim Yahil, Yaakov Shimoni), and rabbis Mordecai Ehrenpreis and Kurt Wilhelm, who served at various times as the Swedish chief rabbi.

Agnon had been formally suggested for the prize in 1947, 1949, 1951 and 1965. Agnon himself was aware of the efforts invested on his behalf and was not averse to lending a hand. In the winter of 1951, he answered an initiative by Rabbi Wilhelm and visited Stockholm for a few weeks with the intention of meeting with authors and intellectuals, and to be presented to the local media.

The lobbying efforts ultimately achieved their aim after years of disappointment and frustration. It finally happened when Agnon was aged 78 – and in a year when his candidacy was not raised by an external body.

So what do the revealed documents tell us about what took place at that eventful time?

A golden Nobel Prize medal. The honor extended to Agnon was an event that shocked Israel’s institutions at the time.
AP

Second in 1965

On February 1, 1966, the Nobel Committee for Literature, comprising five academy members headed by Swedish writer-critic Anders Österling, was handed a list of names of all that year’s candidates: 72 names in all. The list included leading writers in several languages, some of whom would go on to win the prize in subsequent years. The names included Samuel Beckett, Heinrich Böll, Lawrence Durrell, E. M. Forster, Erich Kästner, Robert Graves, André Malraux, Alberto Moravia, Henry Miller, Pablo Neruda, Marcel Pagnol, Ezra Pound, J.B. Priestley, Arnold Zweig and, of course, Agnon and his future cowinner, Nelly Sachs. Sachs’ candidature was raised twice that year, both as an individual candidate and in conjunction with the poet Paul Celan.

The committee member who proposed Agnon was Eyvind Johnson, who himself would win the prize in 1974. Johnson’s action was to a large extent a continuation of the committee’s conclusions from the previous year: In 1965, nine candidates competed for the prize, with the committee whittling it down to six: Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Sholokhov, Jorge Luis Borges, Agnon, Sachs and W.H. Auden.

The Nobel Prize winners together after the awards ceremony in Stockholm, December 10, 1966. From left: Prof. Charles B. Huggins, medicine; Prof. Alfred Kastler, physics; Robert S. Mulligan, chemistry; Peyton Rous, medicine; Nelly Sachs and Shmuel Yosef Agnon, literature.
AP

In addition, the report handed to the committee members prior to the summing up by chairman Österling seriously discussed splitting the prize between two candidates: The names of Akhmatova and Sholokhov were mentioned as both being Russian writers, with Miguel Ángel Asturias and Borges cited as Spanish writers, while Österling suggested Agnon and Sachs (he called them“the spirit of the Jewish nation in our time”).

But despite his advancement of Agnon and Sachs, whose pairing seemed “more natural and persuasive” to him compared to the other suggestions, Österling rushed to point out the problems with this solution.

Ultimately, only three of the candidates reached the final round, with the following ranking: Sholokhov first, Agnon second and Auden third. Ultimately, the academy’s forum chose Sholokhov in a meeting held in mid-October, the accepted date for choosing that year’s laureate.

Yasunari Kawabata at work at his house in 1946.
Courtesy

Agnon remained the second-placed candidate, totally separate from Sachs. Although Österling appreciated her poetry, he was not convinced it was superior to that of other poets of German origin. On the other hand, the committee chairman had glowing words for Agnon, which reverberated in the ears of the committee members the following year.

Österling’s comments focused exclusively on what he called “the great philosophical novel.” He was referring to “A Guest for the Night,” which he read in a 1964 German translation and even penned an appreciative article about it in the Swedish press. Österling also tried to illustrate his reading list by comparing the work to Marc Chagall’s paintings and biblical lithographs, and noted that experts considered Agnon an artist of the most lofty language of modern Israel. “Agnon is a worthy candidate for the prize, without any condition,” Österling concluded.

Fear of a gesture toward Zionism

Perhaps because of the impression left by Österling, or his clear guidance, it was Johnson who suggested Agnon’s candidature for the prize in 1966, in order to give him another chance.

Among the 1966 documents handed to me was a letter of recommendation from the renowned Swedish author Artur Lundkvist devoted solely to Agnon. Lundkvist, who would join the Swedish Academy in 1968, was known among Swedish writers as a fan of Agnon: he had published two articles in Swedish newspaper Stockholms Tidningen in which he reviewed his books that had appeared in Swedish translations (in 1963 and 1965), and even met Agnon in his Jerusalem home while visiting Israel.

Following this trip, Lundkvist published a book called “The Dream in Your Hand: A Journey to Israel,” in which he devoted a whole chapter to his impressions following the meeting with Agnon.

His opinion spanned over five densely packed pages, but the opening paragraph that describes the image of the writer in a completely unconventional way particularly caught the eye: “Shmuel Yosef Agnon is the great master of Hebrew literature, one whose control of modern Hebrew is greater and more perfect than anyone else,” Lundkvist wrote.

“Those knowledgeable in the subject agree on this, in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Agnon is admired, but people are also envious of him. He is an egocentric who declares: There are no other Gods beside me! More than many others, Agnon is the prophet of our times. With an outstretched arm, he is the old man on the mountain.”

The moment of truth approached: A document dated September 5, 1966 – distributed prior to the academy forum meeting scheduled for September 15 – bore the names of the 72 candidates.

Only 10 of the names were new. Sachs, who would eventually become joint winner with Agnon, is only mentioned in the context of a joint prize with Celan. Both Holocaust survivors, Sachs and Celan were close friends and the eventual decision by the academy was to strain their relationship.

It is interesting to note that in 1965 Sachs’ candidature was also mentioned in conjunction with the Israeli philosopher Martin Buber, who also appeared in this document as an independent candidate.

The names suggested to the academy included Beckett, Auden, Agnon, Sachs, Yasunari Kawabata and Graham Greene. Österling rejected outright Beckett’s candidature because of his “pessimism and nihilism.”

Österling also noted how Greene’s name had appeared repeatedly on the list, and if the academy wished to reappraise his contribution and read several of his wonderful new stories, this was the time to do so. He briefly mentioned Auden, saying his candidacy was irrelevant as his best days as a writer were far behind him.

Talking about awarding the prize jointly to Agnon and Sachs, Österling declared: “The suggestion is to split the prize between two writers from different linguistic backgrounds consolidated in a spiritual brotherhood that carries with it the gospel of Israel in modern literature.”

He noted, unexpectedly, that “if awarding the prize to both of them will be considered a gesture toward Zionism and awaken comments of a political nature, the academy can defend its decision and point to the human value within it – something that completely suits the will of Alfred Nobel.”

In the end, the five candidates (Beckett was dropped from the list) were listed in the following order: First, Japanese novelist Kawabata; second Agnon and Sachs; third Greene; fourth Auden.

On September 15, the academy convened to decide which writers would make it to the final round. The final decision was made on October 20 by vote. According to the archivist Broberg, even after 50 years the minutes of these meetings still remain a secret. But at the end of the meeting, Österling announced to the press that Agnon and Sachs were to be awarded the 1966 Nobel Prize in literature.

The two writers “complement each other in their wonderful aspiration to pass on the cultural heritage of the Jewish people through literary expression,” he said.

It appears that the academy rejected the leading candidate, Kawabata – a move considered unusual during the selection process for a Nobel laureate; the Japanese writer had to wait until 1968 to receive the prestigious award. Beckett, who was also rejected this time, received the prize in 1969 when Österling still headed the committee. Greene and Auden never won the prize.

From the minutes of the years 1965-1966, it appears that of the two candidates Agnon was the more certain choice, while they tried repeatedly to find a suitable candidate for Sachs to share the prize with.

The solution was finally found by sharing the prize between her and Agnon. It was a decision that he accepted with demonstrative impatience, while she accepted it graciously.