Essay on the presentation of the
1947 Nobel Prize For Literature
by Kjell Strömberg,
from Nobel Prize Library: Gide, Gjellrup, Heyse
(Helvetica Press, 1971)
THE 1947 PRIZE
by Kjell Strömberg
The award of the Nobel Prize to André Gide in 1947 caused a worldwide sensation. The choice in itself, as courageous as it was wise, was not particularly a target for criticism - quite the contrary - but for ten years no first-rate writer of world fame had attracted the favor of the Swedish Academy. There was a distinct impression that the Academy had been going to special lengths to ferret out and reward local talents.
At the time, Gide was still a highly controversial writer in his own country. Although no one ever denied the originality of this mercurial. perturbing mind or the great artistic value of his work, he was in a certain sense in disgrace because some of the more unusual expressions of his art were viewed as an outrage against decency By the end of World War II, however the battles that had raged around both his person and his books during the twenties and thirties had diminished considerably. During the war, at least politically, his attitudes had been estimable. He had, moreover, just pubished his Journal, a lengthy work which is remarkable as a faithful portrait of both the author and his times. This balance sheet of half a centurv of literary activity was generally hailed as his masterpiece, a worthy companion to Montaigne's Essays and Rousseau's Confessions.
Indeed, after the death of Paul Valéry, Gide, by then nearly eighty, enjoyed a national and international prestige such that many- and not necessarily his most fervent admirers - were led to see in him something of a reincarnated Goethe.
The Nobel Prize was neither the first nor the only public award offered to and accepted by Gide. In 1945, the city of Frankfurt had given him its Goethe Medal, and in 1947 Oxford University had granted him an honorary doctor's degree. Gide even journeyed to Oxford to accept it personally. At the same time, however, he had refused to submit his candidacy to the Academie Française al though, according to Gide himself, several influential Academicians had repeatedly invited him to do so.
Gide had already been proposed for the Nobel Prize in 1946, but it was not until 1947 that a proper report was submitted to the Swedish Academy on his behalf. Written by Holger Ahlenius, a specialist in French literature, the report ended in a veritable deification of the writer as a climax to a detailed analysis of the chief works. Ahlenius paid enthusiastic homage to the author, qualifying him as a "unique complicated personality, who is certainly less distinguished by his creative power than by his analytical and dialectical genius, his intransigent logic, his extraordinary ingeniousness in formulating problems and stirring up men's minds." Precisely for these reasons, he recognized Gide as "one of the greatest European writers of his age and, especially, the one modern French writer who has come closest to the Goethean ideal." In spite of Gide's extreme (and often contradictory) positions on many topics, Ahlenius saw him as "a classic writer for his limpid, balanced style, well chiseled, precise, and subtle, a style directly descended from the seventeenth century." No modern French writer had published less reticent confessions, none had cast a more revealing light on the human soul. Thus Gide struck a responsive chord in young European intellectuals of several generations.
Ahlenius recalled how an entire literary school had grown up around the Nouvelle Revue Française, the monthly journal founded and edited for many years by Gide. In its pages he was the first to introduce the psychologies of Freud and Dostoevsky into French literature. In his variations on the ambiguous theme of the acte gratuit (the wholly disinterested act), he became one of the instigators of Surrealism. It was high time, Ahlenius concluded, for the Swedish Academy to cheat death by honoring this "aged poet," as he called him, with the Nobel Prize which he deserved above all other living writers.
The Academy did not wait to hear these extraordinarily warm recommendations a second time. No doubt the Academicians remembered the mistake they had made in waiting too long to honor another French author of equally universal fame- Valéry, who had died the very year that he was almost certain to receive the award. It is true that Gide had competitors, including several French writers, who might well have proved more acceptable to some of the Academicians. There were Georges Duhamel, Jules Romains, and for the first time, André Malraux. Two future Prizewinners, the Swedish poet Par Lagerkvist and the American novelist Ernest Hemingway. also figured in the list of thirty-five candidates. Many highly regarded "perennials" were also competing, including T. S. Eliot, who was just a year away from his award. Gide had just passed his seventy-eighth birthday, and his health was seriously impaired. Men of letters not only in Sweden but all over the world were eager for the Prize to go, at last, to this venerable snake charmer.
No doubt, the Academy responded to the insistence of public opinion, which was increasingly prcssing; but apparently not without considerable resistance, for week after week passed with no decision forthcoming. The final scruples were doubtless ovcrcome by the highly favorable report submitted by the Academy's expert. An attenuated echo of the report is found in the published motivation, which declared that the Nobel Prize for 1947 was awarded to André Gide "for his comprehensive and artisticallv significant writings, in which human problems and conditions have been presented with a fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight."
On November 13, when the prize was announced, Gide was at Neuch‰tel with his daughter and her husband, Jean Lambbert. In his lbrief book of reminiscences of Gide, Lambert tells us that, unlike most Gide considered the number 13 lucky. Except for his publishers and his immediate family, no one knew his hideaway. Reporters assaulted his house at l-bis, rue Vaneau in Paris. They were received then courteously dismissed by his friend Pierre Herbart and his neighbor, Madame Theo van Rvsselberghe, who was also the mother of his wife. Mum was the word, to the point wherc Gide could go that very evening to see a film featuring Fernandel (he liked it very much). He had alrcady sent his thanks to the Swedish Academy, together with his regrets, since his health would almost certainly not allow him to go to Stockholm to accept the Prize. He was even obliged at the last minute to turn down a formal dinner given in his honor by the Swedish ambassador to France on December 10, the day the prizes were distributed.
As a matter of fact, Gide was deeply depressed at the time. He confided in his friend Jean Delay, who was later to write his biography, "Now that my heart is weakening, nothing I write is of value. I am waiting to get better, but so far it has been in vain. Simply not to get any worse is a great thing. I have turned my lamp down low, it burns slowly, but I can accept this, perhaps for a long time." Delay, an eminent physician and psychiatrist, observed that the Nobel Prize represented a real satisfaction for Gide, but he also recalled that it was "the occasion for a sudden buildup of nervous tension." Gide himself confirmed this. "An old man and, I am finished off by honors."
In an open letter to several leading Swedish newspapers which had sought interviews, Gide confessed that he had received the Nobel Prize "with deep emotion, with tears in my eyes, like a schoolboy who has has won a prize." Then he added, begging pardon for his presumption, "However, the child's joy would not have been so full had he not found himself worthy of this recompense."
On this point, the entire press, Swedish and French alike, were in agreement. Rarely, perhaps never, has a Nobel Prize for literature been welcomed so joyously in France. All the Paris papers (except for the communist L'Humanité) agreed that the new Prizewinner, so long misunderstood, had appeared in recent years to an increasingly wider public as the one truly great figure of contemporary French literature. The Swedish Academy had definitely rehabilitated him, and in exemplary fashion, without bothering to wait for posterity's verdict.
In his address in honor of the laureate for 1947, Mr. Osterling noted that the Swedish Academy was not seeking to crown vice in the person of André Gide, as had been maintained in the Paris salons by, among others, a great Catholic writer who had been his friend for many years and who, between appointments as French Ambassador, would have been delighted to serve as his spiritual director. The award, we learn, celebrated a work of genius and even "of idealistic tendencies," as the donor had hoped when he entrusted to the Academy the delicate task of awarding literary prizes. It is true that the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office lost no time in reacting- it put the entire body of Gide's work on the Index liborum prohibitorum. Gide himself was certainly not greatly upset by this event, for it was made public only after his death. Indeed, he loved being called "the first Nobel Prizewinner who cannot be read by everyone."
At the traditional banquet held at the Stockholm City Hall after the awarding of the Prizes, Gabriel Puaux, the French Ambassador, read a brief message from Gide, expressing his gratitude and his regrets at having been obliged to abandon :a trip that promised to be both pleasant and instructive." He had made a point of reminding his public that he had always refused honors, "at least those which as a Frenchman I could expect from France."