The making of a Nobel Laureate in Literature
Discovery and selection of Gao Xingjian in the year 2000

Junie L. Sinson
Contributing Editor
International Scene

Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian

Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian gives his response at the Prize Award Ceremony, Stockholm Concert Hall, December 10, 2000. Photo provided through the courtesy of the Nobel Museum


t is unlikely that there exists any single literary event which more greatly touches the international world of letters than the annual awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature. When the award is given each year, one can accurately predict the appearance of an article or column critiquing the Swedish Academy’s latest selection. Certainly, that at that time, the institution and/or the procedure responsible for the Nobel selection will be equally critiqued.

In the year 2000, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Gao Xingjian (Gow-Jayjung), the first Chinese writer to receive that recognition. As always, a general secrecy and facelessness surrounded that selection process. The next several issues of the Caxtonian will examine the typical, or perhaps not so typical, journey, which resulted in the 2000 Nobel award being given to Gao Xingjian.

The procedure that produces a Nobel Laureate in Literature often appears to the interested to be quite mysterious. The secrecy related to the selection process adds to the perception of mystery. That mystery continues despite the known provisions in the will of Alfred Nobel, which gave birth to the Nobel Prize.

As the Swedish Academy embraced its assignment, which it inherited and did not seek, it did, during its first century of involvement, reach a major conclusion. The Academy long ago concluded that in literature, there is no “best person” in the world at a given moment.

The late Lars Gyllensten of the Swedish Academy stated, that in choosing a winner, the Academy is being asked to evaluate non-comparable achievements. Gyllensten felt that the prize should remain sensitive to Alfred Nobel’s objective of recognizing a literary figure who produced a high quality of work and a usefulness of purpose.

The Nobel Foundation reported that on December 31, 2000, it possessed Investment Capital with a market value of 3,894 (SEK m). With such extraordinary wealth, one would conclude that the Swedish Academy possesses almost unlimited funds to efficiently explore the world in its search for an outstanding recipient.

There exist four sources from which a Nobel nomination may come: 1. Members of the Swedish Academy; 2. A University Professor of History or Language; 3. Existing Nobel Laureates; 4. Presidents of Authors’ Organizations. Irrespective of the great financial resources and the eminence of the nominators, a recipient can still be nominated as a result of most unpredictable and fortuitous circumstances.

An example of that fortuity was the discovery, nomination, and selection of Gao Xingjian in 2000. The discovery, study, and interaction with Gao is an interesting story,when told in the words of his presenter, Gäoran Malmquist, a member of the Swedish Academy. Malmquist was born in 1924 and began the study of Chinese in 1946. He is the senior selection committee member of the Nobel Prize in Literature. He founded the Department of Sinology at Stockholm University.

In March, 2002, in Stockholm, I had the pleasure of interviewing Malmquist. The following dialogue developed:

JLS: I understand that within the Academy, you are recognized as their major Sinologist.

GM: I am the only one they have.

JLS: How did it come about that you were the presenter of Gao Xingjian when he received the Nobel Prize?

GM: Normally, the Nobel Secretary speaks for the Academy.

JLS: Yes, I wish to know why they chose you to be the presenter.

GM: Speeches and presentations are normally given by the Nobel Secretary and on occasion by the Chairman of the Nobel Committee for Literature, who, in this instance, would have been Kjell Espmark. Rarely are members of the Academy asked. JLS: How then did you first learn of Gao?

GM: I was traveling to China to attend a conference. It must have been 1987. Before rushing to the airport, I grabbed a copy of a literary journal to have something to read.

JLS: How was that significant?

GM: My wife, who is Chinese, was accompanying me. She looked at the journal and said, “ must read this.” It was a story by Gao called “The Shoemaker and His Daughter”—a very tragic tale about a shoemaker who completely dominates his daughter.

JLS: Was it unusual for your wife to assist you?

GM: No, she reads very fast. She occasionally will find a new writer whom she will suggest that I read. All the way home, I’m thinking about contacting Gao. I wrote to Gao. It is actually very easy to contact Chinese writers in Peking.

JLS: Oh, really?

GM: I told him that I had seen what he had written and that I very much liked his story. I invited him to send more stories to me. He then sent to me stories that had been published in journals.

JLS: Did he know he was corresponding with someone in the Swedish Academy?

GM: No, I didn’t think so. I then translated those stories into a volume called Baghdad Fisherman. It’s a magnificent story. As I was about to finish that translation, I met Gao. I asked him what he was working on. He told me and, within three or four months, additional material arrived.

JLS: Did your relationship continue?

GM: Yes. I received from him both dramas and short stories. I continued to translate them. They were unique. You could lift them up on the stage and perform them as a monologue or dialogue.

JLS: Was there anything else special about his short stories or dramas?

GM: Yes, yes, yes. His dramas relied upon both his knowledge of classical Chinese opera, its techniques and, additionally, on the techniques of modern western opera.

Gäoran Malmquist has translated more than 700 Chinese literary works from Chinese to Swedish. Included in that list are virtually all of Gao’s two novels, his short stories and 14 of his 18 plays.

Readers throughout the world are surprised and delighted each year when, in October or early November, the Swedish Academy identifies the recipient of that year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Sometimes the named award winner is unknown and a total surprise. On other occasions, he or she seems to be an old friend, whom one feels is receiving the long-overdue recognition, which the recipient richly deserves.

On several occasions, I have discussed the nomination and selection process with a member of the Swedish Academy. Because the selection process is both private and very secret, readers of the world often describe the process as mysterious. In February of 2001, I discussed the process with the Literature Committee Chairman, Kjell Espmark. I also talked about the process in the March, 2002, visit with Gäoran Malmquist. Here is that conversation:

JLS: When are nominations received for the following year?

GM: Nominations generally arrive between September and February 1. They must be in by February 1.

JLS: What then happens?

GM: The Nobel Literature Committee is presented a list of the nominated candidates. It is a long list of 200 names, roughly.

JLS: What was that committee and what does it do?

GM: The Committee has five members. Its current head is Kjell Espmark. Initially, they tabulate the nominations and recognize the identity of the nominators. They accept the list and by mid-March, they reduce the list to 20-30 individuals.

JLS: What next does that Committee do?

GM: The Secretary, Kjell Espmark, and the members of his five-person Committee begin to speak and discuss the list of candidates.Toward the end of May, they will have arrived at a final short list of five or, occasionally, six candidates.

JLS: What do they do with that list?

GM: They present that list to the entire Academy. We then spend the summer reading. We are given assistance by the Academy’s Librarian.

JLS: What does the Librarian do?

GM: First, the Librarian begins to make books available. They must be in sufficient number so that you do not have to wait. Next, we get a huge compilation of material on each of the five nominees. It includes such things as newspaper clippings and additional reviews from journals.

JLS: Is this applicable to all five nominees?

GM: It is not generally necessary to begin to study all five nominees. In my 15 or 16 years, I never received a list of nominees who were all new nominees. The only thing we have to do is read the new ones.

JLS: Certainly Naipal did not come as a surprise; he was not a new one.

GM: No! Oh, no! He was very good.

JLS: Do you have any idea of how many books, as a member of the Academy, you would read during that year?

GM: I’ve never investigated that. No one forces us. We don’t share our reading list with each other. We read as much as we can. For example, Horace Engdahl, our Permanent Secretary, advised me that he reads three books a day. I said to him, “That’s impossible!” He said, “No, I’ve done that throughout my adult life.”

JLS: Yes.

GM: For me to read three short collections of poetry, I can do that.

JLS: I’m sure that they couldn’t read three books in a day, like Gao’s Soul Mountain?

GM: No, no, no, no. But, it is amazing the amount of books these people go through. I am very busy translating and writing. I mainly spend the summers catching up. I continuously try to follow poetry.

JLS: How many members comprise the Swedish Academy?

GM: We have 18 members, but three do not attend meetings. Twelve members is like a quorum, and we require a majority of seven. The Academy meets every Thursday at 5:00 p.m. The meeting is at the Academy Assembly Room, located at the Stock Exchange building. The meeting lasts 1½ hours. We are each given a piece of silver for our attendance.

JLS: When you must replace a member in the Swedish Academy, what is your practice?

GM: Well, when a member dies, for two months, we don’t mention a new name. After two months, we begin a process, which is more difficult than suggesting a Nobel Prize winner.

JLS: When recruiting to create an efficient sports team, one often recruits to fill one’s weaknesses.

GM: Indeed we ask, where are our weaknesses? It can be, for instance, language. For example, we ask, “Do we have anyone to take on Slavonic style, Russian?” We try to complement the whole.

JLS: Are there other considerations?

GM: There are always practical considerations. We will address age. We investigate the candidate’s ability to attend most meetings. It is quite important that the individual be able to work on small committees. Participation requires a lot of work.

JLS: In these troubled times, do you have someone sensitive to Islamic literature?

GM: We do have members specializing in Islamic studies.

JLS: Is not Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt the only Nobel Laureate you have had from the Middle East?

GM: It is true. Mahfouz was the only one from the Middle East.

JLS: If I were a Muslim, I would be asking, “What about us?” Don’t they have any writers?

GM: Oh they have! Yes! They have fine books, of which we are aware.

This contributing editor chose to describe the function of the Swedish Academy and Nobel Literature Committe in a question-and- answer format.

The answers of Gäoran Malmquist not only defined a procedure, but revealed something of his humanity and the spirit in which he and his fellow Academy members address their duties.

To be continued.

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