It’s one of those great table quiz questions the answer to which is likely to spark a bunfight worthy of any UKIP parliamentary meeting. ‘How many Irish writers have won the Nobel Prize for literature?’ You’d probably answer ‘Four’. And you’d probably be right. Except that our most recent winner, Seamus Heaney, was technically born in the United Kingdom so if it’s a tie at the end of the night that dweeby nerd on the team that finished in joint first place might insist that your answer to that question was incorrect. Am I speaking from direct experience? Did the adjudicator rule in his favour? Did we lose? Did I want to wring his obsessive compulsive pedantic self-satisfied neck? We will never know.
But the commonly accepted answer – I hope he’s listening – is four, namely W.B.Yeats in 1923, George Bernard Shaw in 1925, Samuel Beckett in 1969 and Seamus Heaney in 1995. Beckett, incidentally, is, thus far, the only first-class cricketer to have received a Nobel prize. Which is probably not that important, really. What is of more consequence is that Beckett’s wife Suzanne considered the award to be a ‘catastrophe’ and Beckett himself gave all his prize money away.
There have been one hundred and thirteen Nobel Literature Laureates, with France leading the way on sixteen wins and the USA – courtesy of Bob Dylan – just ahead of the UK in second place on eleven. Unless of course you’re so pedantic you absolutely insist on Seamus Heaney being described as a UK winner (I’m really not bitter you understand) in which case the UK would be joint second. For the record Ireland lies in joint eighth place alongside Poland and Russia.
Yeats was cited for ‘for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. Shaw was honoured ‘for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty’. Beckett was awarded the prize ‘for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation’ and Heaney ‘for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.’
Shaw was nearly 70 years of age when he finally won the award. It was his play about Joan of Arc, St.Joan, written in 1923, the year of her canonization, that seems to have sealed the deal for the Nobel Committee. They had, after all, managed to overlook the Shaw of Pygmalion, Man and Superman and Major Barbara while giving the prize in 1907 to the imperialist zealot Rudyard Kipling, who became the first UK winner. Though, as he was actually born in Bombay certain nit-picking know-alls might claim that he was the first Indian winner. But we’ll let that one pass.
Shaw was about as enamoured of the award as would Beckett be more than forty years later. He didn’t quite reject the prize but he said some pretty scathing things about it and refused to take the money. He is reported as having observed that ‘I can forgive Nobel for inventing dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.’ As regards the prize-fund he pointed out that ‘My readers and my audiences provide me with more than sufficient money for my needs.’ Shaw thus turned down £7000 – the equivalent of £384,000 in 2016 – or about half the value of this year’s award.
Until the Nobel Committee gave the 2016 award to Bob Dylan Shaw had been the only writer to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar – in his case for best-adapted screenplay of his own play Pygmalion. He was even less pleased with his Academy Award than he was with his Nobel gong – describing it as ‘an insult’. Though, apparently, he still placed the slim golden statuette on his mantelpiece. He didn’t turn up for either the Academy or Nobel awards bash but he wasn’t able to spurn the Oscar dosh because there wasn’t any.
George Bernard Shaw turned down the cash element of his Nobel prize, though not the award itself, ninety years ago, on this day.