When Boris Pasternak Won–and Then the Soviets Forced Him to Decline–the Nobel Prize (1958)

Behind the award­ing of the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture, there are sto­ries upon sto­ries, some as juicy as those in the work of win­ners like William Faulkn­er or Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez—and some just as dev­as­tat­ing to the par­ties involved. Last year’s award was post­poned after sex­u­al assault alle­ga­tions lead to sev­er­al mem­bers to resign­ing. (There will be two prizes award­ed for 2019.) The charges need­ed to be aired, but if you’re look­ing for details about how the secre­tive com­mit­tee selects the nom­i­nees and win­ners, you’ll have to wait a while.

“The Swedish Acad­e­my keeps all infor­ma­tion about nom­i­na­tions and selec­tions for the pres­ti­gious award secret for 50 years,” writes Alli­son Flood at The Guardian. New­ly unsealed doc­u­ments from the Acad­e­my have shone light on Jean-Paul Sartre’s rejec­tion of the prize in 1964, and the shun­ning of Samuel Beck­ett in 1968 by com­mit­tee chair­man Anders Öster­ling, who found his work too nihilis­tic (Beck­ett won the fol­low­ing year), and of Vladimir Nabokov, whose Loli­ta Öster­ling declared “immoral.”

Per­haps the sad­dest of Nobel sto­ries has tak­en on even more vivid detail, not only through new­ly opened files of the Nobel Prize com­mit­tee, but also recent­ly declas­si­fied CIA doc­u­ments that show how the agency used Boris Pasternak’s Doc­tor Zhiva­go as a pro­pa­gan­da tool (hand­ing out hasty re-trans­la­tions into Russ­ian to Sovi­et vis­i­tors at the World’s Fair). In Octo­ber 1958, the author was award­ed the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture. He had, as The Guardian report­ed in Octo­ber of that year, intend­ed to “accept it in per­son in Stock­holm next month.” He may have had lit­tle rea­son to think he could not do so.

Despite his role as a per­pet­u­al thorn in the side of the Sovi­et gov­ern­ment, and their attempts to sup­press his work and refusal to allow Doc­tor Zhiva­go to be pub­lished, the repres­sive regime most­ly gave Paster­nak his rel­a­tive free­dom, even after the nov­el was smug­gled abroad, trans­lat­ed, and released to an inter­na­tion­al read­er­ship. Whether or not the Nobel com­mit­tee chose him as an anti-Com­mu­nist state­ment, as some have alleged, made no dif­fer­ence to his rep­u­ta­tion around the world as a pen­e­trat­ing real­ist in the great Russ­ian nov­el­is­tic tra­di­tion.

The award might have been per­ceived as a val­i­da­tion of Russ­ian let­ters, but the Sovi­ets saw it as a threat. They had “raged” against Doc­tor Zhiva­go and its “anti-Marx­ist” pas­sages, “but that only increased its pop­u­lar­i­ty,” writes Ben Panko at Smith­son­ian. Paster­nak had already been “repeat­ed­ly nom­i­nat­ed for the Nobel Prize” and the “world­wide buzz around his new book pushed him to the top of the list in 1958.” Upon learn­ing of the win, he sent a telegram to the com­mit­tee that read, in part, “Thank­ful, glad, proud, con­fused.”

Days lat­er, as The Guardian wrote, Paster­nak decid­ed to decline the award “with­out hav­ing con­sult­ed even his friends.” He sent a short telegram to the Swedish Acad­e­my read­ing:

Con­sid­er­ing the mean­ing this award has been giv­en in the soci­ety to which I belong, I must reject this unde­served prize which has been pre­sent­ed to me. Please do not receive my vol­un­tary rejec­tion with dis­plea­sure. — Paster­nak.

The author’s “deci­sion” was not as abrupt as it might have seemed. In the days after his win, a storm raged, as he put it. Even before the declas­si­fied trove of infor­ma­tion, read­ers around the world could fol­low the sto­ry, “which had more twists and turns than a Cold War-era spy nov­el,” Tina Jor­dan writes at The New York Times. It played out in the papers “with one front-page sto­ry after anoth­er.” Paster­nak angered the Sovi­ets by express­ing his “delight” at win­ning the prize in an inter­view. He was denounced in Sovi­et news­pa­pers, called by a Prav­da edi­tor a “malev­o­lent Philis­tine” and “libel­er,” and his book described as “low-grade reac­tionary hack­work.”

Paster­nak faced exile in the days after he gave up the prize and issued a forced pub­lic apol­o­gy in Prav­da on Novem­ber 6. The Acad­e­my held the cer­e­mo­ny in his absence and placed his award in trust “in case he may some day have a chance to accept them,” the Times report­ed. Paster­nak had hoped to be rein­stat­ed to the Sovi­et Writer’s Union, which had expelled him, and had hoped that his nov­el would be pub­lished in his own coun­try and lan­guage in his life­time.

Nei­ther of these things occurred. The events sur­round­ing the Nobel broke him. His health began to fail and he died two years lat­er in 1960. Pasternak’s son Yevge­ny describes in mov­ing detail see­ing his father the night after he turned down the Nobel. “I couldn’t rec­og­nize my father when I saw him that evening. Pale, life­less face, tired painful eyes, and only speak­ing about the same thing: ‘Now it all doesn’t mat­ter, I declined the Prize.’” Doc­tor Zhiva­go was pub­lished in the Sovi­et Union in 1988. “The fol­low­ing year,” notes Panko, “Yevge­ny was allowed to go to Oslo and retrieve his father’s denied prize.”

Look­ing for free, pro­fes­sion­al­ly-read audio books from Audible.com? That could include  Doc­tor Zhiva­go. Here’s a great, no-strings-attached deal. If you start a 30 day free tri­al with Audible.com, you can down­load two free audio books of your choice. Get more details on the offer here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jean-Paul Sartre Rejects the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture in 1964: “It Was Mon­strous!”

Hear Albert Camus Deliv­er His Nobel Prize Accep­tance Speech (1957)

How the Inven­tor of Dyna­mite, Alfred Nobel, Read an Obit­u­ary That Called Him “The Mer­chant of Death” and Made Amends by Cre­at­ing the Nobel Prize

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • gwr says:

    Anoth­er sad Nobel Prize sto­ry is that of Carl von Ossi­et­zky, who was dying of tuber­cu­lo­sis in a ger­man con­cen­tra­tion camp when he was award­ed the 1935 Peace Prize. The nazis banned him from leav­ing the coun­try to accept and after­wards banned any ger­man from accept­ing future prizes.

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