The 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Tomas Tranströmer

For the first time in 37 years, the Literature Prize has gone to a home-grown author. only has the English announcement, and so it lacks misses the crowd’s wonderful response when the Swedish announcement was made. You can hear the response on this audio clip from Sveriges Radio.

The response online has been a mixture of the usual “Who?”, but followed by an endless glut of “Transformer” jokes. So for those of you not familiar with Tranströmer (including me, it has to be said), here’s a brief rundown of his life and work. has a nice, brief biography of Tranströmer, a brief excerpt of which is below:

On April 15, 1931, Tomas Tranströmer was born in Stockholm, Sweden. He attended the University of Stockholm, where he studied psychology and poetry.

One of Sweden’s most important poets, Tranströmer has sold thousands of volumes in his native country, and his work has been translated into more than fifty languages.

His books of poetry in English include The Sorrow Gondola (Green Integer, 2010); New Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2011); The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems (New Directions, 2003); The Half-Finished Heaven (2001); New Collected Poems (1997); For the Living and the Dead (1995); Baltics (1974); Paths (1973); Windows and Stones (1972), an International Poetry Forum Selection and a runner-up for the National Book Award for translation; The Half-Finished Sky (1962); and Seventeen Poems (1954).

During the post-announcement interview, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Peter Englund described Tranströmer’s work as follows:

“He is writing about the big questions: about death, history, memory, nature. Human beings are sort of the prism where all these great entities meet and it makes us important. You can never feel small after reading the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer.”

For people unfamiliar with Tranströmer’s work, Englund recommends beginning with The Half-finished Heaven & the New Collected Poems. There are plenty of websites that feature Tranströmer’s poetry. Here’s one example below.


Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
 beside his armour of black dragon scales.

Or you can see Tranströmer reading one of his poems in this video.


I’ll leave the last word to Paul Muldoon at the New Yorker’s book blog. Rather than talk about yet another year when an American has missed out on the prize, Muldoon writes that it is “truly heartwarming” to see the prize going to Tranströmer, before adding:

“One can see how the Swedish Academy might have resisted giving the prize to a local boy out of some sense of propriety, so it’s great to see that sense of propriety give way to a more proper sense of the proprietary.”


Nobel Prize posthumous rules explained

When I wrote about excitement in my last post, I had no idea how events would progress, and that they would do so in such a sad manner. Not long after the 2011 Medicine Prize announcement, Rockefeller University announced that Ralph Steinman had died last Friday from pancreatic cancer. It seems to be an extraordinarily sad coincidence; according to the release the family only notified Rockefeller of the news this morning.

Naturally, people are asking what will be the fate of Steinman’s share of the prize. An official press release is due shortly, but in the meantime it’s worth clarifying what the rules are for posthumous prizes.

The posthumous rules changed in 1974. Before 1974, a person could be awarded a prize posthumously if he or she had already been nominated, which was the case with Erik Axel Karlfeldt (Nobel Prize in Literature 1931) and Dag Hammarskjöld (Nobel Peace Prize, 1961). Under the 1974 Staute changes, the prize may only go to a deceased person if the recipient dies between the time the award is announced and the date the prize is awarded (December 10)

This has occurred only once since the 1974 statute changes (William Vickrey, 1996 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel).

It’s not clear how bound the Nobel committee are to the statutes, or what they will do now that the award has already been announced. In the meantime, I’m sure that everyone who offered congratulations only a few hours ago will offer their thoughts to Steinman’s wife, children and family during this bittersweet time.

Timeline: History of the Nobel Prizes

There’s only a week to go before the 2011 Nobel Prize Announcements begin in earnest. So, in addition to covering the news and stories in the run-up to next week, I also plan to post a few explainers, beginning with this timeline covering some of the most important milestones and controversies that the prizes have witnessed in its 110-year history.

Admittedly, this is a first working version of the timeline, I’ll add to it over the coming days. If you feel something is missing or there are any errors, please leave a comment below.

I should add that this form of explainer was inspired by Ed Yong’s use of timelines to capture the stories behind scientific breakthroughs, which in turn, was inspired by John Rennie’s manifesto on how to improve science journalism.