Unless you’ve been living under a particularly large rock, you probably know at least something about Nobel Prizes. They’re five prizes awarded each year to “those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. Most people associate Nobel Prizes with the science-y winners (your Marie Curies and your Albert Einsteins) or the Peace prize winners (like Obama and the World Food Programme), but booklovers know that the Nobel Prizes for Literature are awarded to writers who have changed the world, too. Here are thirteen books by Nobel Prize winners.
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
Nobel Prize For Literature 2018
Polish writer and activist Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the Nobel Prize For Literature in 2018 “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”, according to the judge’s comments. That saw her book Flights (the English translation, by Jennifer Croft, having been published the same year) fly off the shelves. It’s a fragmentary novel that weaves together reflections on mortality, motion, and migration.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Nobel Prize For Literature 1954
Hemingway got the Nobel Prize gong in 1954 “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style”. I can’t say I saw that mastery on display in The Sun Also Rises (and maybe the judges couldn’t either, which is why they didn’t shout it out in their comments). To me, it was just a book about a bloke drinking with his buddies in Spain, moping about having his dick blown off and using it as an excuse to avoid the woman he loves, but others have called it a “poignant look at the disillusionment and angst of the post-World War I generation”. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.
One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Nobel Prize For Literature 1982
Gabriel García Márquez is the Big Daddy of Latin American magical realism, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”. One Hundred Years Of Solitude is a bit of a slog for your average reader (ahem, me), but even so, we can see how it’s come to define the genre. Read my full review of One Hundred Years Of Solitude here.
Death At Intervals by José Saramago
Nobel Prize For Literature 1998
José Saramago wrote the kind of novels that your unabashedly irreverent grandpa would have written if he had the literary chops. The Nobel Prize committee described him in their comments as a writer “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality”. Take, for instance, Death At Intervals (or Death With Interruptions in some territories): a slim little novel about an unnamed country where Death inexplicably goes on strike and nobody dies for months on end. Read my full review of Death At Intervals here.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Nobel Prize For Literature 1949
William Faulkner didn’t believe in any “great writer” nonsense. He once said “Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory.” So, when he got the Nobel Prize “for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel”, it was all raw talent, baby! As I Lay Dying is a weird little book, but rich. It’s a definitive Southern Gothic novel, with a family transporting their dead mother’s body to her desired resting place, each of them narrating the journey in turn. Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.
The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow
Nobel Prize For Literature 1976
Of all the Nobel Prize winners in this list, Saul Bellow is the one that flummoxed me the most. The judges’ comments cited his “human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work”, but… I don’t see it! Hats off to you if you can, but the protagonist of The Adventures Of Augie March is one of the most baffling characters I’ve ever encountered. He just never DOES anything! Simply wanders about, waiting for life to happen to him! Maybe if I’d been part of Bellow’s “contemporary culture” it might’ve made more sense, but as it stands, nah. Sorry. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Augie March here.
An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
Nobel Prize For Literature 2017
Kazuo Ishiguro occupies an interesting middle-ground amongst the recent Nobel Prize winners. He’s a British writer, but he was raised by immigrant parents still deeply connected to their culture and spoke Japanese at home. He writes Great Novels about Big Themes, that are also highly readable and get made into high-grossing films. According to the Prize judges, he’s a writer “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. In my reading experience, there’s no better representation of that than I found in An Artist Of The Floating World, a criminally underrated book by Ishiguro that sadly barely gets a mention. Read my full review of An Artist Of The Floating World here.
Bonus: Ishiguro is probably better known for his literary sci-fi novel Never Let Me Go – I’ve reviewed that one too, here.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
Nobel Prize For Literature 1907
In their comments, the Nobel judges said they gave Rudyard Kipling the gong “in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author”. I can’t help but suspect they were thinking more of his poetry and his children’s stories than Kim when they said that. There’s nothing particularly originally imaginative or virile about a picaresque-cum-spy novel featuring a young boy who has greatness thrust upon him, as far as I can tell. Read my full review of Kim here.
Murphy by Samuel Beckett
Nobel Prize For Literature 1969
Samuel Beckett had a lot going on in his life. He was stabbed by a pimp in Paris shortly before the publication of Murphy, for one. When the Nobel judges awarded him the prize “for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”, they came off like grown-ups trying to prove they’re still Hip and With It by inviting one of the cool kids to their dinner party. Beckett is probably better known now for his plays than this weird mash-up of a novel, and that’s probably not such a bad thing. Read my full review of Murphy here.
Bonus: Beckett is probably better known for his bizarre play, Waiting For Godot – I’ve reviewed it, too, here.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Nobel Prize For Literature 1993
Here’s one I can get behind! Toni Morrison, “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality” (according to the Nobel judges), absolutely understood the assignment. Beloved is a powerful, if rather uncomfortable and unsettling, story of the inherited trauma of slavery told through the lives of one haunted family. Her other novels also explored race and gender long before they became diversity buzzwords in the publishing industry; Morrison was so good they simply couldn’t ignore her. Read my full review of Beloved here.
Bonus: Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, is almost as widely beloved – read my full review here.
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Nobel Prize For Literature 2007
Doris Lessing seems to have gone out of favour, which is a shame. “That epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”, according to the Nobel Prize judges, wrote a heck of a book in The Golden Notebook. It’s intriguingly meta, laying out the four notebooks of a struggling writer who’s on track for a mental breakdown, until she finds the key to her novel, and her reunification of the self, in a fifth notebook (which is, you guessed it, golden). Read my full review of The Golden Notebook here.
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Nobel Prize For Literature 1962
I was actually really surprised by how damn good The Grapes Of Wrath was, though I clearly shouldn’t have been. John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”, and that’s a bang-on description of this book. It charts the journey of a family of Dust Bowl migrants as things go from bad, to worse, to worser for them in their effort to find a new life for themselves away from debt and misery. The ending is a gut-punch the likes of which I’ve never encountered in a book, before or since. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.
Bonus: You probably had to read Of Mice And Men in high-school – check out my full review of that one here, too.
Lord Of The Flies by William Golding
Nobel Prize For Literature 1983
Look, I know lots of traditional literary types froth over William Golding. English teachers would surely be lost without him, a yawning black hole in their year-in-year-out syllabus where Lord Of The Flies should be. The Nobel committee awarded him the prize for literature, “for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today”. I call bullshit. Perhaps my opinion suffered for only having read this book as an adult (no idea where I was the day that it was rolled out in my own high school English studies), but I can’t shake my suspicion that the committee were having a laugh. Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.
Stay tuned! The 2021 Nobel Prize for literature will be announced on 7 October 2021.
UPDATED: The Nobel Prize in Literature 2021 was awarded to Abdulrazak Gurnah “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”